Seattle Writing Prompts: The Montlake Spite House

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The story I heard was that Seattle enlarged Montlake Avenue and took half of one man's plot by eminent domain. He asked his neighbor, who had a large lot, to split off a bit and sell him some so that he might build a full-sized house. The neighbor refused, so the man built a small house that completely blocked his neighbor's view of Montlake Avenue.

This story makes no sense at all: I mean, who wants a view of a big avenue? I'd thank my neighbor if they blocked the noise and bustle like that. But no doubt, if you know about the spite house, you've heard some story of how it came about: a divorce, feuding neighbors, angry developers. Whatever the case, the base facts about the house are known: it was built in 1925, the house is about 826 square feet. It goes for about the price of a condo these days: it sold in July of 2016 for about $500k.

I toured the house, once. It was on the market in 1989, and I called the realtor to arrange a viewing. I showed up with my girlfriend at the time, and let's just say that neither of us really looked much like potential homeowners. His skeptical scowl told me that he was onto the ruse, but such is the price of hosting an infamous house. And, really, maybe I should have bought it: I remember the listing price as $60k or so, which seemed outrageous to me at the time, but given that my rent was $450 for an 800-square-foot studio on Capitol Hill, I probably could have afforded the mortgage if I had figured out how to work a down payment.

Every time the house hits the market, news sites around the world list it as a novelty. Google searches for 'Montlake Spite House' raise a lot of links. Take the real estate photos, write up a lazy summary for your readers, and there you go: you've garnished clicks for your site. But all of them claim one thing: nobody knows the real story of how that house came to be or what it's about. And while that may be frustrating from a historical truth point of view, it's awfully intriguing from the point of view of someone who likes making up stories.

So, maybe we should try to create some?

Today's prompts
  1. The Divorce — Being an independent woman was all the rage, but even if you were a flapper, being a divorced woman in the 1920s was no laughing matter. Even worse was when your ex-husband was ordered to divide the land by a judge, but not told in what proportion. Nothing left to do but show him you can't get rid of an independent woman that easily.

  2. The daughter-in-law — It took her a month of travel after a year of arranging. She came by train, getting stuck crossing the Rockies, which were having a very cold Spring. All just to get to her son on the West Coast, where he settled in Seattle. He'd asked her to come, after all. But when she arrived, he didn't even pick her up at the station, claiming he was busy. When she finally found her way to him, he offered to put her up in an apartment over on Queen Anne, all the way across town from where he lived. When she met her daughter-in-law, she saw where all this guff was coming from. And she knew just the antitode. She bought that tiny piece of land out front of their place. She'd make sure that woman always had a good motherly influence nearby.

  3. The bet — Beggars can't be choosers, but gamblers did choose their lot and so shouldn't beg when they're down. They sure as hell shouldn't welch and make their debtor force them to sell off a piece of their land just to pay down on the debt. If they whine enough, that debtor might just make sure they could stay nearby, just to see that everything that was owed was paid up in full.

  4. The creep — Mrs. Franklin wasn't even yet thirty-five when she was widowed. And with two children to raise, the only thing to do was to shave off a bit of her land and sell it to the city for the extra money. Perhaps, she thought, it could become a small park. Wouldn't that be lovely for the children? It was with great surprise that she noticed a foundation being dug one day, and upon further inquiry, was further surprised to find out the gentleman who bought the land was not connected to the city. He was, unfortunately, a man long familiar to her; one who courted her before she met her husband. One who she rejected many times. One who now leaned on his shovel, taking a break from prying loose some rocks on the land, and gave her a wide smile. "Not gonna be so easy to get rid of me this time," he said with a wink, and then he got back to digging.

  5. The optimist — Someday, he thought, canals would run down the streets in Seattle like in Venice. The Montlake Cut would be dug north and south, and the avenues that lined the college and went up to the hills would be water all the way. So when wicked old Mr. Rockson, who openly mocked the canal vision at a city planning meeting, offered to sell the land that bordered Montlake Avenue to him, little did the old jerk know that he was selling off his canal-front property. And soon that little tiny house out front was gonna be worth four times the house that sat right behind it.