City Paper is not for tourists
Did an Arlington developer intend to make a statement with a 12-foot-wide home? Kind of.
Ask people in Lyon Park about the skinny house, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
At just 12 feet wide, the house stands at the end of N. Barton Street in Arlington. Or, better said, it stands out at the end of N. Barton Street in Arlington, past a succession of unassuming wooden bungalows in light pastel colors.
The skinny house looks like a cross between a single town house with no adjoining properties and a modern, suburban Los Angeles home that demands potted cacti, chimes, and seats for afternoon margarita-sipping.
It’s quite the “conversation piece,” says resident Jay Stanley. “My sense is that people think it’s quirky, amusing, cool, funny.” Stanley’s heard other people wondering what it would be like, as a family, to live there. But most just enjoy the house’s wacky presence. Since it’s for sale (asking price: $1.125 million), open houses are a big hit.
“I haven’t heard anyone express disgust or dislike of it,” says Stanley. “It’s sort of bemused amazement—’bemusement’ maybe’s the word.”
Scaled-back, small footprint—whatever vogue terms you choose, this house is the perfect design for the times, something that represents environmentalism and the ethos of living within your means—or at least within your boundaries. Too bad, then, that it’s all an accident.
In 2003, builder Clarke Simpson purchased the lot on Barton Street and knocked down the small home there. He expected to build two bungalows in its place, but he needed a zoning variance. He wanted to stretch one of the homes five feet wider, from 12 feet to 17 feet.
Two houses down the street got built with the variance, so he didn’t anticipate a problem. Then he met the neighbors, who were tired of seeing two houses packed in where one used to be, says Lynn Alsmeyer-Johnson, preservationist, registered architect for 15 years, and member of Arlington County’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.
(Alsmeyer-Johnson said her neighbor Elizabeth Miller-Moran originally voiced concerns about the zoning request at a meeting for the Lyon Park Citizens Association. Miller-Moran did not respond to a request for an interview.)
The two sides encountered each other face-to-face at a July 2003 Board of Zoning Appeals meeting.
“I guess they thought that if they blocked the variance I would build nothing, and they would have an open piece of property,” says Simpson.
Instead, he told them: “I would build a modern skinny house. They didn’t believe me. They said, ‘Are you threatening us?’ I said, ‘No, I’m telling you I’m going to build a modern skinny house if you don’t give me the variance,'” says Simpson, who is general manager for Mickey Simpson, Ltd. architects and builders, a small homebuilding company started by his father.
Alsmeyer-Johnson remembers the meeting a bit differently: “He said, ‘I’ll show you. I’ll build a 12-foot house with glass, and get someone from California to live in it,'” she says.
And that was the end of it. Or rather, the beginning.
“We did it,” says Simpson, although he didn’t particularly relish the experience.
The media “are propagating this idea that people want smaller houses. It’s simply not true. I’ve never had anyone come to me and ask for a small house,” he says.
Today, the house is 2,880 square feet with four floors, four bedrooms, and three-and-a-half bathrooms. Mickey Simpson’s resident architect, Bob Braddock, purchased the land from Simpson and designed the house with several years of ideas he’s had about how to construct a slim building with a livable, spacious interior.
But Braddock is not effusive about architectural boundaries crossed, either. The lot presented a challenge, he says, and he met it.
Most of the floors are laid out similarly. There’s one room toward the back of the house, one room toward the front, and the stairway, a bathroom, and/or laundry unit between them. The basement has carpet, but most of the rooms have shiny, bright, polished wood flooring. Inside, the overall effect is light and airy.
There have been three offers to buy it. None met Simpson’s expectations, and he wouldn’t comment on the prices.
The first two open houses drew 100 people each, says real estate agent Ruth Boyer O’Dea. She estimates about one third of them were serious buyers definitely looking in the home’s price range. Another third were buyers who noticed the sign. Another third were people from the neighborhood who just wanted to finally see the house from the inside.
One of the many early attendees was Alsmeyer-Johnson. She was not among the bemused.
“I think it’s ridiculous. It looks like it’s going to fall over,” she says. She and others have tried to think of nicknames for the house, she says. One suggested the “pencil house.”
Not surprisingly, Alsmeyer-Johnson doesn’t approve of how the architect met the zoning challenges.
“There are other narrow houses around. This one went to the maximum height,” she says.
Braddock doesn’t dispute that, but he says, in general, he wasn’t terribly concerned about the parameters. Think of the miles upon miles of rowhouses across the Potomac in D.C.
“Most of those houses,” he says, “are 12 feet or less.”
All images by Darrow Montgomery. This article will appear in this week’s print edition of the Washington City Paper.