COLLEEN SAMMIS recalls that “it came out at a restaurant” in early 2006. She, the man she later married and friends were having dinner, “and they were talking about a house Jack owned,” Jack being Jack Sammis.
“I said: ‘Wait a minute. You own the Spite House?’ I had heard about the house, I had read about the house, but I had never seen it.”
The house, 7 feet wide, about 25 feet deep and a whopping 325 square feet in two stories, is a tiny landmark on Queen Street in the Old Town district in Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington. Structurally, it’s more of an enclosed alley than a house — the brick walls of older houses on either side form the painted brick walls in the living room. It’s called the Spite House by some because John Hollensbury, the owner of one of the adjacent houses, built it in 1830 to keep horse-drawn wagons and loiterers out of his alley. Indeed, the brick walls of the living room have gouges from wagon-wheel hubs.
(Alexandria is not the only place where people have settled grudges by building narrow houses. Boston has its own 10-foot-wide spite house, also called the Skinny House, on Hull Street. The most famous spite house was on Lexington Avenue in New York, a five-foot-wide house that was built in 1882 and demolished in 1915.)
Although the couple who previously owned the Alexandria house for 25 years used it for most of that time as a full-time residence, Mr. Sammis has used it mainly as a pied-à-terre since buying it for $135,000 in 1990. “I used to walk by it every day when I worked near here,” he said, “and when it was listed in the paper, I knew right away what house it was. I bought it the first day it was shown.”
“I thought having something unique and historic would be fun,” he said. “And it was near my office at the time.” His primary home then was a colonial in McLean, Va.
Ms. Sammis, who is a commercial real estate agent, finally got to see the house on a date with Mr. Sammis, “one of our early dates.” They were married in a nearby church last July and held a post-reception gathering at the house for about 25 people. “You have to use the garden,” Mr. Sammis said, referring to a walled patio that is 7 feet wide and about 12 feet deep.
Their primary residence is only 20 or 25 minutes away, a 3,200-square-foot town house in North Arlington, a leafy Washington suburb. That house is about a mile from IMN Solutions, which Mr. Sammis founded in 1982; it is an association and meeting management company that serves 86 nonprofit organizations.
His work and the 21st century can be left at the door of the Spite House. Mr. Sammis said that the house was in pretty good shape when he bought it, but that he wanted to take it back to a more original look. So a friend, Matt Hannan, who had redone the patio space for him, took on the interior as well, adding period details and highlighting original elements like the brick walls and the wood floors. Mr. Hannan put the heating and cooling system in the tiny attic space and moved the water heater out of the kitchen and into an upstairs closet. Another upstairs closet conceals a stacked washer-dryer unit.
It’s all as efficient as any sailboat cabin, yet it feels like an 1830s house. In fact, Mr. Sammis says he once rented it to a couple who wanted to see if they could survive living in a ship’s cabin on a round-the-world cruise. They decided they could.
The front door opens into the living room, where a regular-size sofa faces a decorative black wooden mantel. Just beyond that is a narrow and steep wooden stairway to the second floor. Beneath the stairs is a cupboard with a small microwave oven on top. On the other wall is the kitchen counter with a small sink, a small four-burner gas range and an under-counter Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer. A wooden table is pushed against the other wall, providing plenty of room for three to dine comfortably. If it is pulled out and someone sits on a built-in bench at the end of the counter, four or more can use the table. At the rear is a door to the patio. Shelves and small built-in cabinets add storage space.
Upstairs, a bathroom with a claw-footed tub/shower is at the rear. Storage space lines a narrow hall beside the stairs, and a bedroom with a large single window overlooks the street. A full-size double bed is pushed sideways against a wall; it is made up as if the side against the wall is the head. “But you sleep the other way,” Mr. Sammis explained. “This was Matt’s idea.” Painted cabinets frame the window and hide a small television.
The utility bills are appropriately small, Mr. Sammis said, averaging about $22 a month for gas and $30 for electricity.
Mr. and Ms. Sammis use the house as a base for weekends in Old Town. “Mainly summer weekends,” Mr. Sammis said. “We can walk to the farmers’ market just down the street. There are restaurants, the parks on the Potomac.”
In North Arlington, going out inevitably means driving. In Old Town, they can walk almost anyplace they want. Mr. Sammis’s son, Jake, 17, also enjoys the house. When he was growing up, his father said, he especially liked that the Washington Day parade went down the street in front. Now he finds it a good place for homework and for practicing cooking.
Mr. and Ms. Sammis also entertain at the house. “Unless we put some of the people upstairs,” Ms. Sammis said, the house can hold only “about 12” guests.
Both enjoy introducing new people to the house. “It brings an immediate reaction,” Ms. Sammis said, with most expressing amazement.
“The area loves the house,” Mr. Sammis said. “It’s on napkins and cards that show Old Town scenes. It’s always on the Christmas tour.” The house has drawn attention out of proportion to its size. It has even been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
A cast-iron fire shield on the front, which signifies that a 19th-century owner paid the local fire company to ensure that it would respond if the house caught fire, is part of the charm that prompts tourists to pose for photographs by the house.
Mr. Sammis says he often lends the house to out-of-town clients and friends, usually for three or four days. “It’s more interesting than staying at a hotel.” He says his company books about two million hotel rooms a year for clients, and he travels a good bit in his work.
Mr. Sammis, who grew up in a 18-foot-wide Baltimore row house, seems to have a thing for attached housing, with the Alexandria and North Arlington town houses as well as a third attached house in Mougins, 20 minutes from the Nice airport in the South of France. That one is about 650 square feet on three levels. Mr. Sammis, who loves to ski, plans to close in July on a one-bedroom hotel condo unit at Beaver Creek in Avon, Colo. “The gondola leaves from the hotel,” he said enthusiastically, “so it’s really a ski-out place.”
But the little house in Old Town remains the favorite, especially, it seems, for Ms. Sammis. “I deal with commercial spaces,” she said of her work in real estate, “and this house is so different. I love the idea of it — that something like this can exist. It makes the world a little more magical.”