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‘Urban legends die hard’: What do we actually know about the ‘Spite House’ story behind Boston’s famous Skinny House?

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The Skinny House, Boston's narrowest abode, was sold this month for $1.25 million.
The Skinny House, Boston's narrowest abode, was sold this month for $1.25 million. Atlantic Visuals

The plaque outside Boston’s Skinny House may need some revising.

Known widely as the city’s narrowest dwelling, the historic 10-foot-wide North End home across from Copps Hill cemetery has also, somewhat mysteriously, developed a reputation as the region’s most famous Spite Houses. It is even physically labeled as such, in parentheses, on a marker facing its passersby on the Hull Street sidewalk.

The lore goes something like this:

Two brothers inherited the land from their deceased father. While one was off fighting in the Civil War, the other built a large home that took up most of the property in an attempt to box out his brother. But, when the other brother returned, he retaliated by building the Skinny House next door, blocking his sibling’s home’s sunlight and view.

It seems however that our collective view is the one that’s been obscured.

While the myth about the family feud has been repeated everywhere from Wikipedia to the Washington Post, historical records tell a very different story.

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The Skinny House is also nicknamed “The Spite House,” because it was reportedly built to block a neighbor’s views. —Atlantic Visuals

For one, they show the house was built before the Civil War — dating back perhaps as far as the early 1800s (its present appearance is that of an 1840s to 1850s’ structure, but there’s evidence suggesting it’s an Italianate remodeling of an earlier home).

Additionally, the records show that the existing structure was originally half of a larger double house that was part of a block of similar, wood-frame houses. In other words, the Skinny House wasn’t originally built as a standalone home, either.

“Urban legends die hard, right?” Rosanne Foley, the executive director of the Boston Landmarks Commission, said in a recent interview.

The glaring holes in the popular urban legend were first poked by a Boston Globe story last week, after the Skinny House was sold for $1.25 million.

Records kept by the Massachusetts Historical Commission say the 44 Hull St. home is “all that survives (roughly one-quarter) of a larger block of buildings” and was remodeled to its present appearance around 1884, a rare, preserved example of the wood-frame construction that was common in the North End in the 19th century.

The records do show that the property was passed down by family; after a man named Joseph Eustis bought the property in the early 1800s, it went through the hands of four generations of his descendants. However, there’s no mention of two brothers jointly owning the land. The records say the property was inherited by Eustis’s son and then his grandson (both of whom were also named Joseph).

The last Eustis heirs to own the property were two granddaughters of the last Joseph: Elizabeth C. (Hartt) Barnes, with her husband, William H. Barnes, and her sister, Sarah A. Hartt. They acquired the property from their aunt Sally (Eustis) Longley in 1857 and then sold it to a watchmaker named Thomas Neely later that year.

According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the double house was “likely” built around that time. And then after the property was sold again in 1884, the double house was remodeled into three attached wood-frame houses on the same footprint. While they were all relatively narrow, what’s now the Skinny House was, well, the skinniest, because of the 4-foot-wide alleyway on its lot.

Foley says the alleyway is likely the reason the Skinny House survived.

Records show that the narrow alley provided access to two other residences through what’s now the Skinny House’s surprisingly spacious backyard. But at the time, the yard was “Hull Street Place.” And since public access to those homes had to be maintained through the alley, there wasn’t enough room to build a full-size brick house like there was on the neighboring lots (the wood-frame homes at 46 Hull St. and 48 Hull St. were replaced by three-floor brick houses around 1885).

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The backyard of the Skinny House. —Atlantic Visuals

Records show that the homes behind the Skinny House were demolished by the city in 1944, but the Skinny House itself — and the alleyway that now provides access to its sideways-facing front door and yard — stuck around.

“That’s the vestige,” Foley said. “They didn’t have enough clearance to build a full-size brick house like they did on the other parts.”

According to Foley, the narrow alleyway was “very typical” of the North End’s layout at the time — and to some degree still is.

“It’s a really old neighborhood, and there are a lot of little streets that you can go down, and then there’s this whole other little alleyway with buildings,” she said. “It’s very charming.”

Foley says it’s not 100 percent possible to rule out some sort of spiteful story behind the Skinny House without some sort of deep genealogical research, such as finding and reading the diaries of its 19th-century inhabitants; after all, sometimes such myths evolve from a kernel of truth. But, Foley notes, the “unusually complete” survey form does indicate otherwise.

Still, she finds the property fascinating as a relic of what the North End used to look like.

“To me, it’s really cool that a family took a lot of interest in it and, as tiny as it is, lived there, were happy,” Foley said, adding, “hopefully, not spiteful.”

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A man walks by Boston’s famous Skinny House last month, after it was listed for sale for $1.2 million. —Elisa Amendola / AP