In 1914, the government of New York City took ownership of a Manhattan apartment building belonging to one David Hess. The city used a legal power called eminent domain, allowing governments to seize private property for public use — in this case they wanted to expand the subway system. Hess fought them and lost, and when all was said and done, his building was torn down, and he was left with a triangle shaped piece of property. It was about the size and shape of a large slice of pizza.
Later, the city tried to get him to donate his pizza-shaped property so that they could build a sidewalk. He refused again. They built the sidewalk anyway, and in the middle of the sidewalk is Hess’s triangle, with a tile mosaic that reads: “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes.”
People like David Hess, who refuse to sell their properties, are called holdouts. Eminent domain generally only comes into play when the government wants private property for public use (though there have been some exceptions). If it’s a private development that wants your place and you refuse to sell, there’s often not much they can do. In China, where there’s been development boom in recent years, they call their holdout houses “nail houses.”
Around 2005, a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard started to see unprecedented growth. Condominiums and apartment buildings were sprouting up all over in a community which had previously been made up of mostly single family homes and small businesses. Around this time, developers offered an elderly woman named Edith Macefield $750,000 dollars for her small house, which was appraised at around $120,000. They wanted to build a shopping mall on the block where Macefield had lived for the last 50 years.
Macefield turned down the money. Developers went forward with the shopping mall anyway. The mall enveloped her house on three sides.
The architects designed the building in such a way that if Macefield ever decided to move, they could easily incorporate the space where her had been into the building. The developers eventually increased their offer to $1,000,000, also offering to find her a similar home somewhere else, and pay for a home health-care provider.
Again, Edith Macefield turned them down.
The press loved Edith Macefield’s “David and Goliath” story of a single old woman pitted against some the big, bad developers. But while the press was clamoring to talk to Macefield, she wanted nothing to do with talking to them (as evidenced in this CBS segment).
Slowly, Macefield warmed to some of the construction workers on the project, especially Barry Martin, the project superintendent who would check in on her occasionally and drop off business cards, telling her to call if she needed anything.
She eventually asked Martin to take her to a hair appointment.
Soon thereafter, Barry Martin began taking Edith Macefield to all of her appointments — and then, because it was easier to coordinate with his schedule, he started making them.
Spending all of this time together, Martin got to know Macefield well. He learned that she was not upset about the way her community was changing. She was not even mad about the mall they were building more or less on top of her house. On the contrary, she seemed happy to have the company.
Macefield was an avid reader and loved to talk about books, listen to old music (a lot of opera and big-band music, according to Martin) and watch old movies. She was also a writer. Her longest piece was a 1,138-page work of fiction entitled Where Yesterday Began. She paid to have the book published in 1994 under the pen name “Domilini.”
As Martin got to know Macefield, the old woman told him stories about her past that were so incredible he found them hard to believe. For example, she said that she had been a spy for the British during World War II, and that was captured spying and spent time in the German concentration camp of Dachau.
She also said she’d taken care of a number of war orphans in England after the war with her then-husband James Macefield. To top it all off, she also claimed that Benny Goodman was her cousin and that she had played music with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (Macefield played both saxophone and clarinet).
Barry Martin eventually became Edith Macefield’s main care-giver. He make most of her meals, visited with her on weekends and even attended to her in the middle of the night if she called and said she needed him. She finally agreed to a live-in nurse when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Even then, Martin had her power of attorney — she put him in charge of her final decisions.
Edith Macefield died in her house on June 15, 2008, at the age of 86.
She left her house to Barry Martin — the construction superintendent who became her friend while simultaneously sandwiching her house between a Trader Joe’s and an LA Fitness.
After she died, Martin began packing up Macefield’s house and looking for things that would confirm the crazy stories she had told him about her past. He never found anything about her escaping Dachau or caring for any war orphans. But he did find a Benny Goodman record with a written inscription that said “To my cousin Edith, with love, Benny.” He also found the below correspondence:
After people found out that Edith Macefield had left her house to Barry Martin, there were some who called him an opportunist. Ultimately it’s hard for anyone other than Martin to know what his motivations were, but a few healthcare workers who took care of Mrs. Macefield before she died also had a very high opinion of him. They said that he was there every day when no one else was and that he seemed to care deeply for Macefield.
Martin eventually sold Edith Macefield’s house to an investor who had various plans for it, none of which have materialized, and recently that same investor asked Martin if he’d be interested in buying it back.
The house is all boarded up now, and no one is sure what will happen to it, which is sad to some people but Martin says that Macefield didn’t care what happened to the house after she died — that she never really cared about the bigger story that the outside world had created about her. She had her own personal reasons for staying in her house and they had nothing to do with that narrative.
Whatever her reasons were for doing it, she stood her ground. And she became a symbol, whether she wanted to or not. There’s even a tattoo shop in Seattle that does a special tattoo to honor the legacy of Edith Macefield. It is a picture of her little house, and underneath it — the word “Steadfast”. You can also buy a 99% Invisible t-shirt inspired by her story and featuring a rendering of her house and its surrounds.