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From Issue #53 October 9, 2014

Shell Game

Built from spite, some old houses persist as history.

By Georgia Perry Twitter icon

The Scott house in 1970

On Peterboro Street in Detroit, James Scott built a mansion in 1887. It was not uncommon for a wealthy man to build such a large house at that time and in that neighborhood: the city’s economy was large and expanding, and castle-like homes were in vogue. Scott’s house was unique because it wasn’t built for him to live in — it wasn’t built for anyone to live in.

Scott originally intended to make it his residence, but at 105 feet long and 20 feet deep, it wasn’t big enough for his tastes. Scott, infamous locally as a “gambler, storyteller, raconteur, and practical joker” had his eye on the property’s adjoining lot so that he could build an even larger mansion. But the owner refused to sell.

Scott went forward anyway, building a house that appeared to be a beautiful three-story mansion from the front, with eye-catching stonework and bracketed by turrets. But from the back, the home was flat and windowless — a three-story wall, built for the sole purpose of blocking the sun from reaching his neighbor’s property.

An early photo of the Scott house

As if to twist the dagger, Scott never even let anyone else live in the house that he spent $20,000 to build — the equivalent of millions in labor and materials today. The Detroit Free Press wrote in a 1985 article, “Scott for the remaining 19 years of his life never lived in, rented or sold the ‘spite house,’ but kept meticulous care of the grounds, keeping the lawn mowed and shooing off neighbor kids who wanted to use it as a playground.”

The house would later come to be known as “Scott’s folly.”

False fronts

Building so-called “spite houses” like Scott’s wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s. In 1830 in Alexandria, Virginia, a homeowner whose property directly bordered an alleyway popular with loiterers and horse-drawn-wagon commuters responded by building an extremely narrow home, just seven feet wide, in the middle of the alley.

In Boston stands another itty-bitty home, built in 1874 by its owner to torment his brother. While one brother was away at war, the other brother seized all but 90 square feet of a swath of property willed to both by their father and built a large home for himself. When the other returned from war, he constructed what’s now known as “the skinny house”: a four-story, 10-foot-wide house at the edge of the property that blocks the light to the other brother’s home.

Seattle has a renowned and much more modest spite house, built in 1925, that blocks the street frontage of the home that sits behind it.1 Alameda, California, has a similar small but obtrusive home that similarly blocks light and street access.

The Seattle spite house

According to Timothy Boscarino, a historic-preservation planner for the city of Detroit, spite houses thrived in this period because of an almost total lack of city zoning laws. “Detroit didn’t have any zoning at all until the 1940s,” he says. “There was a lot more diversity in terms of what you could get away with — building close to a lot line, not having windows.” Spite houses are a true product of their time. “I don’t know if you could build a spite house now,” Boscarino says.

Scott’s house was converted to apartments after his death, in 1910. Four new wings were built, also sporting blank walls, and which butted right up against the next home over. That spited house and all the other homes on the block are long demolished.

The modern backside of the mansion long after its conversion to apartments

Spite respite

This spring, Detroit developer Joel Landy, who has owned the James Scott property for the last 15 years, secured a portion of funding to begin developing it into several one- and two-bedroom condominiums. He estimates that the total cost to redevelop the building will be $7 million, and so far he has secured $2.6 million in state historic and redevelopment tax credits.

The lively, fast-talking Landy considers himself a kind of savior to the neighborhood in which the Scott residence and dozens of others are located. “I’m not like other developers. Me, I had a bunch of junk property that no one would even drive near — it was that dangerous,” he says by phone.2

Landy calls the Cass Avenue neighborhood, where the Scott residence is located, “Landy Land.” “Kinda like Candy Land,” he says. “I own every building on three square blocks.” Before he moved to the neighborhood in 1979, Landy says, it was very dangerous and almost exclusively a transient neighborhood. He describes the block he eventually moved to as simply, “the worst block in the world.” It had pawn shops, a pool hall, a headshop, an adult club, and a neighborhood hotel — the Addison — populated by prostitutes and junkies, Landy says. “For years we were building low-income housing here because it was the only thing that could be done.”

Landy moved to the neighborhood for reasons not unlike those of James Scott himself: “I came here because I liked the vacancy of the area. I could keep my tractor on the front lawn; I could do whatever I wanted. Every time something came [up] for sale around me I bought it because I didn’t want any neighbors. So eventually I owned this whole neighborhood.” The 22-room Victorian home he initially bought himself there cost under five thousand dollars.

The mansion today

These days, Landy owns multiple charter schools as well as a movie theater, a restaurant, and more. He takes great pride in the way his developments have revitalized the neighborhood. “In all my renovations, I have the higher goal of historic preservation. I own these historic properties, and if I let them crumble on my watch, that’s a problem because I’m really holding them in trust for the rest of the population. It’s a big responsibility,” he says.

The renovation of historic properties has added significance in Detroit, Landy explains. Part of his mission is to help the people of Detroit come to appreciate the significance of the city’s historic properties. He has made regular use of historic preservation tax credits in the renovations he has done on historic buildings in the city. “Since the industrial revolution in Detroit, more than anywhere in the world, we’ve been taught to buy a new car every year. We didn’t want anything old. We want brand new. That really affected our development,” he says.

The people of Detroit have a history of resisting Scott’s attempts to leave his footprint on their city — a 1911 New York Times article chronicled the back-and-forth debate Detroit’s leaders had over whether to accept the $200,000 Scott bequeathed to the city, stipulating that they use it to build a fountain, along with a gaudy statue of Scott himself, in the city’s Belle Isle Park. (It was built, and cost $500,000 in 1925.)

Landy anticipates that his renovation will be complete no later than 2017, ensuring that the people of Detroit will not be able to forget Scott’s legacy any time soon. As far as the blank back walls go, Landy is working on getting permission from the National Park Service to add windows.

Historical photos courtesy of Joel Landy. Photo of apartment backs by Cari Nelson of Treasures of Detroit, and used with her permission.

  1. The editor of this publication lives several blocks from the Seattle spite house, and missed its peculiarity for nearly 20 years until a former co-worker pointed it out. 

  2. I had intended to go to Detroit to see the Scott residence in person, but Landy told me there was no point. “We can’t even go inside the building. It’s that bad.” 

Georgia Perry is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. She has written for publications such as Vice, Portland Monthly, the Portland Mercury, and the satirical women's magazine Reductress. She is a former staff writer for Santa Cruz Weekly.

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