Spite House


In 1882, New Yorker Joseph Richardson found himself with a plot of land that was only 5 feet wide, at Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street. He offered to sell it for $5,000, but the buyer offered only $1,000. Richardson called him a tightwad and vowed to put up an apartment building of his own.

He managed to fit eight three-room suites into the four-story structure. (“Everybody is not fat,” he said, “and there will be room enough for people who are not circus or museum folk.”) The dining tables were 18 inches wide, and only one resident at a time could use the stairs. Even visitors found it an ordeal: One summer day in the 1890s, reporter Deacon Terry of the American became wedged in a stairway while trying to reach Richardson on the roof; he was finally forced to slip out of his clothes and interviewed the landlord in his underwear.

Nonetheless, the building stood for 33 years. It was torn down in 1915.

Literary Reunions

Browsing in a Paris bookshop in the 1920s, the novelist Anne Parrish came upon an old copy of Jack Frost and Other Stories, a favorite from her childhood in Colorado. When she showed it to her husband, he found it was her own copy, inscribed with her name and address.

George Bernard Shaw once came across one of his own books in a used bookstore in London. He was surprised to find his own inscription inside — he had presented the book “with esteem” to a friend. He immediately bought the book and had it wrapped and delivered again, after adding a second inscription: “With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw.”

Splinter Faction

Quite recently in China fifteen wooden idols were tried and condemned to decapitation for having caused the death of a man of high military rank. On complaint of the family of the deceased the viceroy residing at Fouchow ordered the culprits to be taken out of the temple and brought before the criminal court of that city, which after due process of law sentenced them to have their heads severed from their bodies and then to be thrown into a pond. The execution is reported to have taken place in the presence of a large concourse of approving spectators and ‘amid the loud execrations of the masses,’ who seem in their excitement to have ‘lost their heads’ as well as the hapless deities.

— E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906

Forestiere Underground Gardens

Newly arrived in Fresno, Calif., in 1906, Baldasare Forestiere found the soil would not support an orchard like his father’s in Sicily — there was a layer of hardpan below the surface. But after two years digging tunnels as a laborer in Boston and New York, he had become handy with a pick and shovel, and he soon dug out a skylighted room 10 feet underground, in which an orange tree flourished.

So he kept digging. In time, he added a kitchen, a pantry, a living room, a reading room, two bedrooms, and a tree-filled courtyard that included a bathtub that he could fill with water warmed by the sun.

Forty years later, Forestiere had built a multi-level underground complex that covered 10 acres and included 100 rooms and passageways, including a chapel, a hothouse, a winery, and a “fish-viewing room” whose glass-covered skylight opened onto the bottom of a pond. He estimated the whole thing cost only $300. When he died in 1946, he was adding a 3,500-square-foot ballroom.