New York's skinniest house is a charmer

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, House Styles, Old House History, Historic Preservation

I grew up in a big farmhouse in Kentucky. It started out as a small, two-bedroom house but grew over the generations. A new bedroom here, a bathroom remodel there, a basement expansion — why not? — and soon the small farmhouse had turned into a big, rambling monster of a thing. I grew up believing that plenty of space was the only way to go.

So you can probably imagine my amazement when I read about the house at 75 1/2 Bedford Street in New York City. Considered the smallest house in the City, it is a whopping 9 1/2 feet wide. Inside the house, you get eight feet and seven inches at the most. At the narrowest point, it’s a measly two feet. The three stories are only 30 feet deep.

Small house, big history

Consider the size of this house for a moment. With the help of my trusty tape measure, I have determined that my dining room table, davenport sofa and bedroom dresser are each wider than this. A typical street lane is about 12 feet in width. Most king-size mattresses are just over six feet wide.

For all of that lack of space, the house has an interesting history. Constructed in 1873, it was originally a cobbler’s shop and later, a candy factory. After the construction the value of the Greenwich Village parcel the house sat on was not changed, suggesting that the house was too small to even be noticed by tax surveyors. After passing through hands a few times, it wound up as the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1923. The home was renovated to include skylights, casement windows and a studio on the top floor.

In later years the home was occupied by John Barrymore, Cary Grant, cartoonist William Stieg and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Today it is a destination on the tourist trail, as so many people want to see exactly what this tiny house looks like.

The two bedroom, two bath place sold for $1.6 million in 2001, $2.2 million in 2010 and after significant renovation, is now on the market for $3.9 million. The renovations included exposing all the original wood beams, reclaimed hardwood floors, custom kitchen cabinets and built-in storage throughout the house. Somehow, the contractors managed to install a central air system and found space for a full washer and dryer. But there are still the quirks that remind you of how tiny the house is, such as the staircase that you have to climb almost sideways to use and the shower so narrow that it’s smaller than most coat closets.

For all the small size, it is a charming little place. However, I can’t help but think that $3.9 million could likely purchase seven or eight of those rambling farmhouses I grew up in, where the 960 square feet of this NYC building would be lost in a forgotten corner. On the other hand, those farmhouses wouldn’t be surrounded by the history, thrill and life of New York City.

For even more about this interesting little place, check out this 2004 article from The Villager.