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Boston's 'Skinny House,' built in a family feud two centuries ago, sells for more than $1M

With an origin tale of spite between two feuding brothers and a prime location amid historical sites in Boston's North End neighborhood, the house at 44 Hull Street was sold for $1.25 million - yet its fat price is everything but indicative of its size. Nicknamed "The Skinny House," it is also the city's narrowest home. 

Sandwiched between two brick buildings, the sage green four-floor house clocks in at 1,165 square feet. Its widest point is some 10 feet wide, but its narrowest measures 6.2 feet across - just 5 inches more than the average American men's height.

"Shaquille O'Neal would definitely be able to touch wall to wall," said Travis Sachs, the executive vice president at CL Properties, the real estate agency that sold the property.

After receiving multiple offers, the house was sold to a family of four after it was first listed on August 10, said Carmela Laurella, president of CL Properties. The deal was finalized Thursday for $50,000 above the original asking price - something that Sachs said was "in line with" the city's real estate market.

"In the North End waterfront area, we basically average here about a thousand dollars a square foot," he said. "We sold above that for about $1,500 per square foot, being that the house is fully renovated, has the outdoor space in the back and also the private roof deck."

The quaint house is made for vertical dwelling, with each of the floors representing a living space. To enter people have to inch down the narrow alley to open the main door, where they are immediately greeted by the kitchen and dining area. The second floor features a living area, a dining nook and bathroom decorated with blue tiles. The two remaining levels are bedrooms with sitting areas and sprawling windows, Sachs said.

Perhaps its best amenity, Laurella said, is the "unbelievable backyard," or a private garden where its two new young dwellers will surely be able to play and run around.

"It's certainly unique," said Sachs. "There's nothing else like it that we have here. It's really a landmark in Boston."

Sitting near some of Boston's most renowned historical landmarks, the Skinny House is an unofficial stop for those participating in the Freedom Trail Walking Tours - which visits 16 national sites in its route. The house is located right across from Copp's Hill Burying Ground, Boston's second oldest cemetery that includes the graves of two Puritan ministers associated with the Salem witch trials. The upper deck offers a view of the same harbor where chests of tea were thrusted into the water as part of the country's iconic 1773 Boston Tea Party. The USS Constitution, the 224-year-old ship that defeated four British frigates in 1812, is visible as well.

The house itself is not a historic site, but its quirkiness has become part of Boston's lore.

Legend has it that the city's narrowest house emerged from a feud between two brothers who inherited land from their deceased father. While one was fighting in the Civil War, the other built a property on it. When he returned, he built the "Skinny House" in 1862 in an attempt to block his brother's views and sunlight, earning the house the alternative nickname of the "Spite House" - which is proudly displayed in a wooden plaque in the home's front.

Building a house to irk a family member can seem petty at best and malicious at worst, but it is not a unique trait of the Skinny House. Across the country, a slew of buildings, known as "spite houses," also have grudging origin stories - and not all date several centuries.

In 19th century Council Bluffs, Iowa, an individual disliked General Grenville Dodge - a Union Army officer who helped direct the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad - so much that he built in 1869 a pink house in front of Dodge's property to spite him, according to The Annals of Iowa, which is published by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Some eight years ago, a man in Topeka, Kan. decked a house with pride flag colors to fight the Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for its anti-LGBTQ signs located across from the building now known as "the rainbow house."

These instances might provoke ire from neighbors or, in the case of Westboro Baptist Church, the erection of a tall and sturdy fence. Yet, in the United States there is no law to prevent petty behavior - unless the decision can be proven to stem from malice and to cause harm to the other party, said Roger A. McEowen, a professor of agricultural law and taxation at Washburn University School of Law.

"Because the courts have said that those disputes are left up to zoning and planning officials, they are leaving it to the city officials to determine what is an acceptable use of property, unless it gets into the issue of maliciousness or creating nuisance," he said.

Unlike England's judicial system, in the United States "there's no recognized negative easement for light, air or view," McEowen said, meaning, owners do not face restrictions from taking certain actions that may block their neighbor's sunlight - as was the case of the feuding brothers.

However, when a property owner's decisions are shown to cause harm, the court can side with the spited party. Such was the case, the law professor said, of the popular 1988 Coty v. Ramsey Associates, Inc - in which man's decision to haul in truckloads of manure and erratically operate a pig farm to spite his neighboring hotel owners was found to be an "unreasonable and substantial" interference of the other's use and enjoyment of their property.

In his career as an agricultural lawyer, McEowen said he has dealt with a fair share of similar disputes - mostly involving fences sprung out of spite. Regardless of what structure is being erected out of cattiness, he said their emergence shows how "there's no law against being a bully or being an ogre," he said. "Unless it crosses into maliciousness."

According to psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, people engage in this kind of retaliation out of a sentiment of deceival and exploitation. Their motivation, however, "can easily underestimate the repercussions of their vindictiveness" - sometimes resulting in a nasty legal battle, a hefty fine or a minuscule house.

When it comes to Skinny House, its spiteful history might have provided some charm.

"For $1.25 million you can live like a spiteful brother," Sachs said. "That's really something."



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