The development (and re-development) of neighborhoods is quite an unstoppable force. When real estate values go up and businesses get excited, there is usually little that can stand in the way of modern glass and concrete structures filled with condos and sandwich shops.
But, every once in a while, a few determined or just plain stubborn individuals will decide they don’t want to step aside for the steamroller of progress. And most of the time, progress will just decide to go around.
In China, a country where aggressive development has rankled many citizens, these kinds of homes have been nicknamed “nail houses” because they stick out like a single nail on a board that just refuses to get hammered down. Here are a few of the most interesting of these dedicated homeowners.
Edith Macefield's "Up" Home in Seattle, Washington
Edith Macefield had lived quite a fascinating life before a parking garage made her a local folk hero.
Born in Oregon in 1921, Macefield was raised by her mother and two helpful godfathers. A teenaged Macefield joined the war effort a few months before she old enough to do so, got away with it, and spent those years in England tending to children orphaned during World War II. She was living out her senior years in her home in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood when gentrification came knocking—a major development was going up and they needed Macefield out.
Macefield refused to sell and leave her home, forcing the frustrated developers to offer her $1 million for the house and the land it sat on. Macefield still said no. Locals cheered Macefield's determination as a stand against the homogenization of the neighborhood and construction moved forward without her spot of land.
As walls of concrete went up around her little plot of heaven, Macefield didn’t seem to mind and would simply turn up the volume on her opera music: “I went through World War II, the noise doesn't bother me,” she commented.
During construction an unlikely bond formed between Macefield and Barry Markin, the project’s construction superintendent. Markin had taken to talking to Macefield and started driving her to appointments and the store. Their relationship even inspired Markin to write a book about getting to know her.
Sadly, Macefield passed away in 2008. She left Martin the house; by selling it, he was able to pay for his children to go to college.
Despite the Macefield's passing, the house continues to generate interest as many ponder its final fate. There were originally plans by OPAL Community Land Trust to purchase the home and barge it to Orcas Island, where it would have been a home for lower-income families. However, a Kickstarter campaign failed to raise the funds to complete the move.
Now, its future looks bleak, as reported by the Puget Sound Business Journal, which proclaims that the home will likely be demolished. The home has “used up its useful life and then some” says Paul Thomas, the broker who assisted in the sale of the house.
There is hope that the house, and Macefield, could be forever memorialized on the silver screen. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a film is in development from producers Will Gluck and Jodi Hildebrand of Olive Bridge Entertainment that would focus on the house and Macefield and Martin’s unique friendship. So, even if the house doesn’t stay standing forever, there’s still a chance this saga will get the Hollywood ending it deserves.
A Unique Compromise in Osaka, Japan
In the 1980s in Osaka, Japan, business was booming and development was on the minds of many. One group that saw some economic opportunity were the owners of a family-run charcoal plant that has been in Osaka since the 1870s.
While the charcoal business was no longer profitable, the land their business stood on was in high demand and the property owners made plans to construct an impressive office building on the site of their 19th-century business.
There was only one problem: Plans were already in motion for an expansion of the Hanshin Expressway and part of it was supposed to cut right through the exciting new building plans.
The owners were unwilling to squash their dreams of building a modern office tower and city planners needed the highway expansion. In an amazing compromise (reached after five years), both sides agreed to allow the highway ramp to pass right through the office building, turning what may have been just another building into a local landmark.
Today the office still buzzes with activity and is known around town as “The Beehive.”
The Notch In The World's Largest Department Store
Few destinations have as many interesting real estate stories as New York City; the curious case of the corner of 34th Street and Broadway is one of them.
It is on that spot that in the late 1890s that owner Rowland H. Macy had prepared to build a newer and bigger version of its popular department store store, then located on 14th Street. The new flagship would eventually earn the title of “World’s Largest.”
Macy’s plan to move uptown was a “prescient one” according to Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, a research fellow at the New York Historical Society’s Center for the Study of Women's History. At that time, most retail was clustered around 14th Street, but she states that “between 1900 and 1915 most of the major stores had moved uptown. Affluent customers were moving north, away from the packed precincts of lower Manhattan.” Moving farther north would also place Macy’s closer to Times Square, then becoming a popular entertainment and nightlife area.
While making plans to construct the store around 1900, Macy’s had expected to buy the final piece of landed needed: a small building right at the corner of 34th and Broadway. But an agent of Macy’s rival department store Siegel-Cooper heard of Macy’s designs on the land and made a huge offer to the owner of the property on the corner.
The rumor is that Siegel-Cooper wanted Macy’s old location on 14th Street and was planning to use the corner plot as a bargaining chip to get it. But Macy’s did not play ball: The company held on to their previous plot of land and just built their massive new building around the tiny corner.
Such real estate shenanigans were the result of an especially contentious time in New York retail. Explains Gutierrez: “In the 1890s, when Siegel-Cooper's opened their first department store in New York and Macy's was planning its move uptown, retail was furiously competitive.”
She says that retail was very “cut-throat” in that period, with large retailers battling one another, while small businesses struggled to stay afloat as these massive department stores took over.
The building that was on the corner was demolished soon after the new Macy’s store opened and a new five-story structure was put up in its place in 1902. That building was purchased by another developer and sold in 1911 for a whopping $1 million (around $25 million in today's dollars); that sale earned the plot of land the nickname the “One Million Dollar Corner.”
The new Macy’s store represented a new age in retail, both in the United States and around the world. The store featured new retail advancements such as escalators, lighted window displays, and air-conditioning. Gutierrez points out that “in his landmark 1993 book on consumer society, Land of Desire, historian William Leach described Macy's as ‘a mythical symbol of American mass consumption’ and 'the epitome of economic force’.”
The 1902 building stands there to this day, though it has historically been overshadowed by a massive Macy’s billboard atop its frame.
A Nail House of Defiance In China
Individuals who stand against the still-roaring wave of building that has swept over China in the past decade have the opportunity to take on a larger significance.
Many frustrated Chinese citizens have seen themselves pushed aside to make room for the government’s grand development plans. Such was the case for Ms. Wu Ping, a homeowner in Chongqing who held on to her home for much longer than the average Chinese citizen usually does.
Wu’s battles with the government allowed her house to remain standing while construction crews dug a massive pit around it. By the time of Wu’s defiance in early 2007, China’s National People’s Conference had passed a law that gave Chinese property owners more rights than they had enjoyed before in such disputes. Supposedly in years past a homeowner in a dispute might return to find their home already demolished if they were putting up too fierce of a fight.
Wu’s personal tenacity and flair for the dramatic—she once stood stoically in front of a locked gate to her home in a bright red coat while TV cameras rolled—may have allowed her to keep her home standing for as long as it did.
In an unsurprising ending for a government that doesn’t love dissension, the home was eventually demolished later that year after Wu had been compensated for the land.
Trying to Ward Off Developers For Eternity
While the resistance of Wu Ping was impressive, it was not quite as remarkable as the stand one Chinese family took against a land takeover.
In Taiyuan, China, the construction of a new apartment complex was slowed when one family refused to sell a plot of land where a departed relative was buried.
The family of the interred man, Chang Jinzhu, was unwilling to sell because the developer could not answer why they had selected that particular spot of land for the apartments.
The standoff created an unusual and almost hauntingly beautiful scene: a thick pillar of earth topped with the remnants of an old graveyard, surrounded by the concrete and scaffolds of the new building’s foundation. It looked less like a construction site than a frame from one of Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated features.
A compensation agreement was eventually reached in 2012 between the developer and the family to move the gravesite to a new location. In preparation for the relocation, the company constructed a platform and ramp that allowed the family to pay its final respects prior to the move.
A Portland Lawyer Remained Happy Where He Was
When Portland transit authority TriMet sought to build a new transit hub with some fuzzy ties to nearby Portland State University, they encountered a landowner who was especially well prepared to hold on his century-old house—a lawyer.
Randal Acker is an attorney who had just recently purchased and fixed up the 1894 Victorian home to use as space for his law office when TriMet came knocking.
Acker tells Urbo that the architecture and history of the house drew him in: “It’s a Queen Anne Victorian historic building, beautifully kept up. Inside it has period pieces: chandeliers, most of all the original woodwork...all extremely well [preserved].”
Acker especially liked that the house had a “relaxed feel to it”—the atmosphere acting as a nice counter-balance to his otherwise intense daily work as an attorney.
Between the hard work and money he had just put into the house and his experience in commercial litigation, Acker was ready to make sure he held onto his house, which he had named after his dog, Figo.
Acker recalls very distinctly the meeting he had with the PR representative who had come to “ease everyone out” of the neighborhood. The representative made it clear to Acker, “in no uncertain terms,” that TriMet would end up with his property. Acker says “I told her in no uncertain terms I would be fighting. And she asked me what kind of law I practice and I said, ‘If it’s necessary over the next few years it will be eminent domain law.’ And I told her I wanted to thank her in advance because if I prevail I planned to go after TriMet to recover my attorney fees.”
A motivated Acker began aggressively digging into the particulars of TriMet’s plans and found some information that he deemed “troubling”—confidential conversations between TriMet and nearby Portland State University regarding the land acquisition and interest in having the historic preservation society reclassify the Figo House, thus making an eminent domain acquisition easier.
In summation, Acker says, “There was a lot of underhanded stuff that was going on and a lot that was being kept from the public.”
To get neighbors and the public on his side, Acker put all the information he had about TriMet’s questionable conversations into xeroxed packets and handed them out at a public hearing. This began to turn the tide to Acker’s favor. “The public was fantastic,” he says, and, “The media was fantastic.”
He was able to unearth more inconsistencies in TriMet’s plans for the land: What was originally billed as a transit hub was actually going to be a dorm for PSU, run by a private company. Eminent domain necessitates that property seized has to go for public use, not private businesses.
Acker’s tenacity paid off: Months later developer TriMet sent what Acker called a “peace pipe letter." Essentially the message was “You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.” Though they scrapped their original plans for a megastructure on the site, later TriMet crafted plans for a residence hall that worked around Acker’s Figo House.
His historical office space spared, Acker had no problem sticking it out while construction raged on all around him. The construction company, Walsh Construction, was “very easy to deal with,” says Acker. It was certainly a sight to see, as this modern dorm tower rose around a tiny Victorian home, but Walsh kept him apprised of what they would be doing throughout.
Acker even enjoyed a bit of extra publicity by attaching a bevy of balloons to his house to in the spirit of the movie Up, with the construction foreman himself helping to attach the balloon bunch in Acker’s crawlspace.
Presently, Acker is happy with how everything turned out, saying the new development has “enhanced the area and made it more livable.” He wants to be clear that he’s not in any way anti-development; he just wants to ensure it’s done with care.
“I think you need to account not just for future needs and development but history,” states Acker, “This neighborhood has amazing history.” He goes on to mention that many of Portland’s founders came from this area, which was once predominantly Jewish and Italian. The Figo House has its own fascinating history, at one time being a boarding house for single women who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Today, the sight of Acker's Figo House is a nice reminder that sometimes history and progress don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As cities continue to speed ahead into the 21st century, there can always be hope for a symbiotic relationship between buildings that help a neighborhood’s future and structures that remind residents of a location’s past.