Love Letters to Boston: The Skinny House

Boston is an old city, and because of that, it’s easy to find examples of strange architecture everywhere. When the new blends with the old so often, it’s not uncommon to find some unusual-looking spots around the city. However, these locations are the most fun when they have an interesting story to go along with them.

My personal favorite is located at 44 Hull Street. This address is home to the Skinny House, located in the North End (Boston’s version of Little Italy) right across the street from Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. This is a neighborhood known for its historical significance, so of course, the Skinny House lives up to that standard. 

After all, this wouldn’t be a column about how much I love my quaint little New England city if I didn’t include a little bit of local legend. While there is no definite explanation for the Skinny House’s existence, I’d like to share the version of the story that I was first told.

Credit: Morgan Clark

The house dates back to the Civil War era, sometime around 1870. It’s said that two brothers had inherited that plot of land after their father died. The inheritance, of course, was larger than just the space that the Skinny House covers.

One of the brothers went off to serve in the military, while the other remained in Boston, and allegedly built a large home for himself on the plot of land. The man intentionally left a tiny amount of property for his brother the soldier, who returned to find that his inheritance had also been spent up by his disagreeable sibling. 

To get what little revenge he could, it is said that the soldier built the Skinny House as a spite house — a building meant to inconvenience or irritate neighbors, as the name suggests. He figured that he would do the most with what little land was left for him, and used the Skinny House as a way to block sunlight and ruin the view from his inconsiderate brother’s larger home.

Skinny buildings like this are not altogether uncommon in Boston, but the Skinny House is said to be the narrowest in the city by far, stretching just 10.4 feet across at its widest point. The front door doesn’t even fit in the front of the house — the tenants have to go down the narrow alley on the side of the house to enter.

Yes, that’s right, I said tenants. Despite its unusual architecture, the Skinny House is not just a tourist attraction or a museum. People actually live there. Now, even my dorm room has more wall-to-wall space than the Skinny House. At no point in my room can I reach out and touch both walls at once (thank goodness). So how do they do it? Vertical living.

Before selling the house in 2017, a family who spent 17 years in the Skinny House gave The Boston Globe an inside look at how they manage to make the Skinny House their home. They had a lot of tricks that they’d learned to make the space as comfortable as possible, and if you’re interested in learning more about their unique living situation, you can read that profile here.

It's possible that the story of the brothers is completely accurate, but it could also just be an example of good storytelling on the part of locals who have passed down the tale since the house was built. Either way, the Skinny House definitely deserves a place in my love letters to Boston as a peculiar and endearing feature of the city.

 

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