Tiny Homes, Once Built For 'the Poorest People,' Have an Outsized Appeal
By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
The average size of a new house built in the United States last year was 2,324 square feet. Linda Crowley Horger's circa 1890 place on Capitol Hill would practically fit in the family room.
Two stories high and two rooms deep, the house is a scant 552 square feet. Her tiny kitchen has a microwave but no oven and no dishwasher. The counter has a sink, a two-burner electric cooktop and enough counter space to butter toast. There's no central air conditioning -- she hasn't figured out where to put the paraphernalia -- and there's no washer and dryer.
It was exactly the kind of house she had in mind when she moved here from Philadelphia 20 years ago.
"Doll houses" is what real estate agents call them -- miniature places as narrow as eight feet that dot Georgetown and Old Town and Capitol Hill.
In an era of suburbia on steroids, when builders are erecting ever-larger tract mansions, what attracts people to houses the size of walk-in closets?
"In Philadelphia, you have father, son and holy ghost houses," narrow three-story townhouses, Horger said. "They have one room on each floor, very tiny rooms, smaller than this. So when I came here and saw these alley houses . . . all these little secret places? When I saw this house, I bought it."
Horger's house has an equally tiny neighbor that belongs to John Klaja. The houses are paired and quite alone, surrounded by old warehouses that are now used as art studios, the Christ Church parking lot and the garages and back gates of the houses that line the 600 block of E Street SE.
They are the last of a group of about 20 houses that were built more than century ago on F Street Terrace "for the poorest people," said Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. Some of the early residents worked at the Navy Yard nearby. Others were laundry workers or delivered coal.
Now the tiny old houses are considered chic.
The mirror-image houses have 12-by-15-foot living rooms broken up by a door and window in front, a smaller window on the side and a staircase to the bedroom and bath on the second floor.
Compared with Horger's, Klaja's kitchen is high tech. He has an oven. It's part of a single appliance that also has a four-burner cooktop and a dishwasher below.
What attracted him? The graphic artist said he liked the location and "the price was right."
His living room holds a two-seat couch, an antique birdcage with no bird, a single straight-backed chair and a coffee table. His desk has a black rotary phone that he brought back from Turkey sitting next to a flat-screened Mac computer with little round speakers that look like Plexiglas apples. The desk doubles as a dining table when he has guests.
Klaja, who has lived in the house for 11 years, has considered adding a few things. Waving a hand at a scarcely visible wedge of space in front of the dining table, he said, "I'd like to put a recliner there."
But adding anything in a place that small is a challenge. Klaja made a full-size paper cutout of a television set to figure out how it would fit in the room. He's contemplating a washer-dryer, though that would mean losing the only downstairs closet.
"These places really aren't big enough for two people," Klaja said. "There's space for one person and a dog."
"John's house is much more organized than mine, because I got married," said Horger, who is an administrator for a flight safety company.
That was 13 years ago, when Horger's husband, Rusty, an aviation ordnance chief in the Navy, was away most of the time. "We got married, and he left for the Persian Gulf and didn't come back for three years. . . . When he got back to the States, he was stationed in Norfolk so he was down there all the time. So really, until 1999, he wasn't home.
"Then things got challenging," she said, laughing.
Beyond the belongings of two, there were wedding gifts to store and, for a time, she had a home office with all its necessary equipment. "You just can't have everything you want."
Is she particularly neat? "No, no," she said. "I've had spurts of neatness, like twice. I have a huge storage place where I keep stuff, but we don't get over there as often as we should. There are like boxes in the middle of the living room floor."
When the intimacy and clutter grow oppressive, Horger and her husband retreat to their cabin in the mountains. Now they're looking for a third house near Lexington Park, where Rusty Horger works.
"We're gonna have a place that's bigger because we have like antlers -- caribou antlers? My husband's a hunter. We have stuffed grouse and woodcock and we have a great big deer head. I mean, he wants to be suburban. . . . I have no place for all this stuff. So we've got to get him a damn rumpus room or whatever it's called."
She'll remain in Lilliput during the week. They're used to separations.
Klaja's getaway is the garden. It's walled and packed with tropical plants, a puddle of a pond, two turtles and a toad. An enormous mirror leans against the back wall, visually doubling the space.
He designed the front garden as well, a show-stopping explosion of banana plants, zinnias, cannas, pomegranates and grapevines where tourists stop to look and pose for photographs.
People also take plenty of snapshots in front of Old Town's smallest house, at 523 Queen St.
Usually it's the same picture, said Kathryn Allen, who lives a few doors away. They face the little wooden house with the bright blue paint and stretch their arms wide. Since the house is just 7 feet 2 inches across, the pose is irresistible.
Linda Cole rented the 1830 brick house for two years before buying a place of her own a few blocks away.
"I had it fixed up really nicely," she said. "It was great, lovely." Except for all the tour buses.
"For the first year I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the second [year] it got a little . . . I had tour buses and people out front. It was like living in a glass house," she said.
Friday and Saturday nights were the worst. "I'd be coming down the street and seeing them measuring with their hands, pacing the house with their feet." (The house has been vacant this summer.)
Cole said she's "very, very neat. You have to be. You can't have clutter."
She said she never felt cramped in the 480-square-foot, one-bedroom house, even with her cocker spaniel, Bailey. "It reminds you of a New York flat with the 10-foot ceilings," she said. "And every inch of space was used to the fullest."
Allen, a mechanical engineer with the Navy, bought her 850-square-foot dollhouse sight unseen when she was transferred to the region two years ago. She paid $247,000.
"I had lived in Washington once before, so I knew it was tiny," she said, "but I also knew there were only so many houses in Old Town that sold for under $300,000. The guys that I work with said, 'Do you know what that is per square foot? That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.' I said, 'No, it's a great address.' "
The shingle-sided house looks like a 10-foot-wide box with a lean-to on top. It was built in 1790.
"This is a flounder house," Allen announced.
Why is it called that?
"I'm clueless," she said, "but you're supposed to be impressed."
(Michael Miller, a research historian for the Office of Historic Alexandria, said the name comes from that sloped roof: "It has a blind side like the blind eye of a flounder.")
Like Cole, Allen gets tourists. "People look into your window all the time," she said. "I was going out the other day and there were two couples from Wisconsin who said, 'Can we just look in your house?' I let them look in."
With not even a patch of front garden to buffer the house from the curious, she keeps her living room extremely neat. "There's curiosity," she said. "How can you live in a house that goes room to room to room instead of spreading out?"
When built, her house was just two rooms deep with a living room and dining room downstairs, two bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen and bath, originally outbuildings, were added to the rear in the 1880s.
The downstairs is now 50 feet deep, though that is deceptive because the bathroom is in a 10-foot dogleg behind the kitchen. A small window air conditioner cools the entire place.
There's nothing dainty about her furniture, though. The living room has a big tan leather sofa with comfortably rounded arms, a matching chair and ottoman, a roll-top desk and two tall bookcases.
"I don't feel stuffed in this room," Allen said. "But I can't take any more furniture. One good thing about a little house: You stop buying things. You switch your buying to consumables."
She said, "As long as I'm single, this is a great house. When you have visitors, after three or four days you're tripping over each other."
Inside the house, everything is slightly off. Each of the treads in the staircase is a different depth; some are around seven inches, others 7 1/2. Modern treads are normally 11 inches.
"The stairs? I've actually fallen down them several times because they're so thin," Allen said. "You have to come down sideways.
"The ceiling is only about seven feet tall and very uneven," she added. "One thing about Old Town, nothing is level. You just have to accept the fact and say yes, that's part of the charm. With a house built in 1790, I'm just happy it's still standing."
Allen recently remodeled the kitchen, which is about the same size as her living room, adding a skylight, new appliances and pale maple cabinets that hide the water heater and the boiler.
She also had the roof redone, saving several square-head nails that date back to Washington and Jefferson.
Beyond the kitchen, a long, skinny garden provides a leafy retreat that's the ultimate in easy care. The beautiful crape myrtle and shade trees belong to adjoining yards. "I don't need any trees," she said. "It's taken care of by the neighbors."
Can she see herself staying? "I hope I retire in the 500 block of Queen Street," Allen said. "I love this street, love living in Old Town. I'm not really a history buff, but you kind of become one when you live in one of these old homes. The same street names have been here since 1749."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company