Despite what we’ve been programmed to think, bigger is not always better. And that’s true for many things—even real estate. More square footage usually commands a higher price, true. And it’s deemed more valuable, but that doesn’t mean beauty is a given.
In an era in which even the most prosperous among us are fascinated with tiny homes and aesthetic minimalism, it seems appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the opposite of the famous idiom, “go big or go home.” Curb appeal isn’t dependent on size, as this collection of sweet historic homes proves. In fact, very cool structures can be fit into the most surprising of spaces. As these photos are about to prove, limitation and constraint are often the impetus for outsized creativity. We’ve rounded up nine perfectly petite houses, from Cary Grant’s skinny stomping ground in New York City to the charming cabin Le Corbusier called his last home, the clever 580-square-foot Hollywood cabin renovated by Vincent Kartheiser to a 10-foot-wide home designed by an African American architect during the Great Depression and built from salvaged materials.
Marie Kondo, we think, would approve.
75 1/2 Bedford Street, New York City, NY
Famous in New York as the city’s narrowest house, this West Village townhouse clocks in at 999 square feet with an interior width ranging from just two feet to eight feet and 7 inches. It was built in 1873 during a smallpox epidemic in a former carriage entrance, with a narrow spiral staircase leading up to the second and third floors. Over the years it’s evolved alongside its owners: the early ‘20s saw it leased by a group of artists for actors including Cary Grant and John Barrymore, who were working at Cherry Lane Theater nearby, and when Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived in it, her renovations added a skylight and steep gabled facade. Cartoonist William Steig, his sister-in-law Margaret Mead and prolific children’s author Ann McGovern all called it home at one point, with the latter finding inspiration for Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House.
Le Corbusier Cabanon, Côte d’Azur, France
The story surrounding legendary architect Le Corbusier’s intimate French Riviera escape is half the appeal. In 1952, the so-called godfather of modernism drew definitive plans for a 12-by-12 log cabin in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in just 45 minutes, with a window framing the Mediterranean. It was a birthday present for his wife inspired by the extreme minimalism of not only cabins on ships but monks’ cells. Le Corbusier wrote of his beautifully composed design, “Not a square centimeter wasted! A little cell at human scale where all functions were considered.” There many prefabricated elements, constructed in Corsica since the building site is—still—only accessible by foot—including a walnut table, unmilled pine for the exterior and built-ins. The architect decorated it, too, with murals he painted in the entrance and on shutters.
La Casa Estrecha (101 Calle Tetuán), Puerto Rico
What’s tall, impossibly thin and bright yellow? The two-story creation of architect Antonio Álvarez, who strategically remade a neglected alleyway in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, into a super-slim house finished with eye-popping sunny paint and green trim. At just five-feet-three-inches across (and 36 feet deep), it holds the Guinness world record for the narrowest house in the Western Hemisphere. Most people can touch both walls simultaneously with outstretched arms, but the home—now being used as an art gallery—does have a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining and living room, plus the pièce de résistance: a balcony boasting expansive views of the city and San Juan Bay.
10 Lower Gate Street, Conwy, UK
The tiniest house in Great Britain is so small it’s measured in inches rather than feet: 72 inches across by 120 inches deep and 122 high. The unmissable red structure was built more than a century ago as an infill property between cottages, with its back wall comprising part of a tower. The quaint single-bedroom home was last occupied in 1900. After being declared unfit for habitation at the turn of the century, it became a tourist attraction, acting as a time capsule to pint-sized life in the 19th century.
6512 Lexington Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
There’s a decent chance designer Funn Roberts studied Le Corbusier’s clever cabin when he renovated a 580-square-foot 1912 cabin in Hollywood for Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser—it makes that effective use of space. (Kartheiser later sold it.) The bed is on a pulley system, allowing the redwood slab headboard to double as a desk when the mattress is raised toward the exposed-beam ceiling. With a Japanese-meets-midcentury vibe, there are shoji-esque fiberglass and steel screens hiding the closet beside a black slate–clad bathroom, where the sink is carved from a 650-pound rock. The spare yet slick cabin even boasts a steam room and sauna, with an undulating ceiling comprising 2,500 pieces of wood.
2528 Crist Street, Alameda, CA
There are infinite rumors about what’s known as the “Alameda Spite House,” a skinny little blue home built in 1908 so close to a stately circa 1880 Queen Anne abode that it allegedly distressed that neighbor into committing suicide weeks later. They were both later believed to be haunted, though the current residents get along swimmingly. The spite house’s second floor cantilevers slightly over the sidewalk, ballooning its nine-foot footprint to 12 feet for a grand total of 1,135 square feet, with a grand central staircase, two bedrooms, and 1.5 baths.
523 Queen Street, Alexandria, VA
For its diminutive size, it’s impossible to miss the cheery cobalt blue “Spite House” on Queen Street in Old Town Alexandria, one of many, actually, in the city. It’s just seven feet wide, 25 feet deep, and 325 square feet total, dating back to 1830. It came into being because the owner of the house to its left, brickmaker John Hollensbury, was sick and tired of the 24/7 traffic (horses, carriages and people) in the alley, and decided filling the space with a house would stop the flow of noise keeping his family up at night. One alternate tale is that it was in response to constant quarrels over the neighbor’s carriage scraping and damaging Hollensbury’s home, while yet another is that he built it—with heart pine floors, painted brick walls, and molding—as a playhouse for his daughters.
Kleine Trippenhuis, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Interestingly, the widest house in Amsterdam sits across a canal from its narrowest. The story goes, two Trip brothers—wealthy arms merchants—built themselves a nice, big home in 1662, and after one heard the carriage driver say he wished for a house as wide as their front door, he built it for him. In truth, the pretty, petite house (named Little Trip House) with its fanciful sandstone facade of sphinxes and grapes wasn’t erected in an alleyway until 1696, after the brothers had passed. That doesn’t stop tour guides from telling the story to tourists who visit the eight-foot-wide now-shopfront (upstairs is still inhabited).
The Skinny House (175 Grand Street), Mamaroneck, NY
One of the first African American homebuilders in New York, Nathan Seely, was the designer behind the so-called Skinny House on Long Island Sound, built during the Great Depression (there’s even a memoir out about his story). Last year, the beautiful gabled, shingled 10-foot-wide dwelling—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—was put on the market for $275,000. The house sits on a 12.5-by-100-foot strip of green (a gift from the neighbor after Seely lost his business) and was constructed impressively from only salvaged materials, including a chicken coop, rusted railroad track and paperboard. Along with a kitchen, pantry, two bedrooms, and living room, it even has a cellar and attic. The interior spaces are small, but delightful, with unique angles and maximized natural light.