Holdout

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[background music]

Roman: In 1914 in Manhattan, the city government took ownership of an apartment building belonging to a guy name David Hess. They used a legal power called “Eminent Domain,” which allows 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.

Katie Mingle: And when Roman says triangle shaped, he means the property Hess was left with was about the size and shape of a very large slice of pizza. He was not amused.

Roman: That’s our producer, Katie Mingle.

Katie: 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’ triangle, with a tile mosaic that reads: “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes.”

Roman: In other words, “Get off my **** triangle, jerks!” It’s still there, by the way, on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue in the West Village.

Katie: People like David Hess who refuse to sell their properties, are called “holdouts.” And eminent domain only comes into play when the government wants your property for public use. If it’s a private development that wants your place and you refuse to sell, there’s not much they can do.

Roman: Although, there had been cases where eminent domain has been controversially used for private development. But that’s another story.

Katie: In China, they call their holdout houses “nail houses.” You may have seen some of the pictures of single houses sticking out like the head of a nail. Everything else around them bulldozed and carved out.

Roman: Basically, anywhere there’s a lot of new development, there are bound to be developers who have plans to make lots and lots of money if they could just get that one stubborn person to move.

Katie: Which brings us to one of the most stubborn and steadfast holdouts ever. Edith Macefield.

Kathy Mulady: Yes, I always call her Mrs. Macefield.

Katie: That’s Kathy Mulady. She is one of the only reporters who ever got an interview with Mrs. Macefield.

Roman: A feat she achieved through unwavering persistence, good manners, and proper attire.

Kathy: Later I asked her, I said, “What was it that made you decide to talk to me today?” And she said, “I liked your skirt.”

Katie: Edith Macefield lived in a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard.

Roman: Ballard had once been its own little town until it was annexed into Seattle in 1907. So it had the feel of a small town. A lot of single-family homes and small businesses. That started to change around 2005.

Kathy: When development really started to sprout, there were condominiums, we started hearing some push back from old-time residents in the neighborhood who felt that the neighborhood was changing too quickly.

Roman: Ballard became so iconic of this type of super fast, high-density development that–

Kathy: –when it happens in other neighborhoods, we call it the “Ballardization” of my neighborhood.

Roman: So in 2005 when Ballard was in the middle of being Ballardized, a developer wanted to build a shopping center that would take up the entire block where Edith Macefield have lived for the last 50 years.

Katie: Edith Macefield’s house was in a more industrial section of Ballard and her block was mostly empty besides her tiny house.

Roman: Just so you can picture her house, you know, when you are a kid and you draw a picture of a house using a little square with a triangle on top, then you put a little front door and a couple of windows on each side? That is exactly what Edith Macefield’s house look like.

Katie: The developers offered her $750,000 for her house which was appraised at about $120,000 and as you can probably guess, she said no.

Roman: And so they said, “No problem. We’ll just build our mall around you like literally, all around you.”

Barry Martin: Hi I’m Barry Martin. I work in construction as a project superintendent. And so, I’m just a guy out there in the site making sure that, you know, it all gets done.

Katie: Barry was hired to oversee the shopping center project. And he heard that some Ballard residents weren’t happy about all the new development but he wasn’t too worried.

Barry: I mean, it’s just a job for me. You know, I didn’t really think about it, you know, really one way or another.

Roman: He hadn’t yet heard about Edith Macefield.

Barry: So when I got closer to where I was going to start the project, my wife asked me if that was the one where there was a little old lady down in Ballard who wouldn’t move. I said, “No that was not it because, you know, these guys would have told me.” I called them up and they said, “Oh yeah. Didn’t we tell you?”

[Music]

Man Reporter 1: Whoever said you can’t stand in the way of progress has never tried to step over Edith Macefield.

Man Reporter 2: The Ballard woman who refused to sell her little house to developers.

Woman Reporter 1: The little old lady being bullied by developers.

Roman: The story was classic David and Goliath. Edith Macefield versus the big, bad developers.

Katie: And Barry Martin wasn’t super excited about all the extra media attention on his project.

Barry: I’m thinking this is a lose-lose proposition because all she has to do is, you know, complain and, you know, tell somebody at the TV station or the– on the newspaper, you know, it’ll be a really big deal.

Katie: But even though the press was clamoring to talk to Mrs. Macefield, she wanted nothing to do with talking to them. Kathy Mulady had been one of the few exemptions. Here’s Mrs. Macefield turning down help from a CBS reporter as she took out some trash in her front yard.

Man Reporter 3: You want some help, Edith?

Edith: No.

Roman: Excuse me. She liked to be addressed at Mrs. Macefield. Thank you very much. Later in the segment, he knocks on her door and you can hear a muffled, “Go away!”

Male Reporter 3: Is there any…

Edith: Go away.

Male Reporter 3: Okay.

Roman: Unfortunately, that muffled recording of a cranky Mrs. Macefield is the only one we could find of her. She passed away in 2008 which we’ll talk about more later.

Barry: About my second day there, I am walking by Edith’s house and she was out on the front yard with her flowers and her little dog that was blind.

Katie: The worker’s started to demolish the few other buildings that were on the block and dig up a bunch of soil that was contaminated with lead. And, all the while, their neighbor, Mrs. Macefield, went about her business day after day just like she’d always done.

Barry: She’d get up in the morning and feed the birds and throw bird seed out on the sidewalk. Most of the time, the bird seed would be there when we got to work and if the bird seed wasn’t there by 10 o’clock, we knew that something wasn’t right.

Katie: If they didn’t see the bird seed, Barry would knock on her door to see if she was okay.

Barry: And she would usually yell at me to get the hell out of there and go away and leave her alone. And then I just tell her that, you know, “Okay, I’m just checking on you.”

Katie: A lot of people thought that once the construction started in earnest, Edith Macefield would fold. The noise and the encroachment on her privacy would just be too much.

Roman: The architects even designed the building in such a way that if Mrs. Macefield ever decided to move, they could easily incorporate the space where her house was into the building.

Katie: But she didn’t fold. The developers upped their offer to one million dollars plus they offered to find her a similar home somewhere else, and pay for a home health-care worker. She turned them down.

Roman: A year passed and the building around Edith Macefield’s house got bigger and bigger. The image of it was really something. You may have seen pictures of the house especially if you’re from Seattle.

Barry: The building towered 40 feet above her, you know, her little house was dwarfed fairly well.

Roman: It wasn’t just a big building sitting next to a tiny house. It was a big building completely enveloping a tiny house on three sides. The walls of the building were so close that Mrs. Macefield could practically lean out her window and touch them.

Katie: As the building moved forward, the construction workers kept checking in on Mrs. Macefield and occasionally, bringing her lunch from McDonald’s. She purportedly loved Big N’ Tasty’s and Barry kept dropping off business cards, telling her to call if she needed anything. And then one day, she finally did.

Barry: She said that she didn’t feel comfortable with driving that day and could I give her a ride to go get her hair done. You know, we got her in the car and started driving over there and we kind of talking about how, you know, Ballard was changing.

Katie: And sort of surprisingly, Edith Macefield wasn’t angry about the way Ballard was changing. She wasn’t even angry about the mall they were building more or less on top of her house.

Barry: She said, “Because, it always changes.” She said, “Twenty years from now they will be tearing this down and building something else.” She said, “That’s just the way it goes.” I felt like she was happy that we were there.

Kathy: She said she didn’t mind the noise. She said, “I was through World War II.”

Katie: That’s Kathy Mulady again.

Kathy: And [chuckles] she didn’t mind the attention from those young construction workers who walk by her house and waved to her or smiled or checked in a little bit.

Barry: She’d been there for 50 years. At that point in time, you know, she was 86 years old. Money really didn’t mean much to her anymore. She couldn’t move around very well. She knew where everything was in her house. She had no reason to move. She didn’t have any family, so getting the money so that she could leave it for a family that didn’t exist.

Roman: Mrs. Macefield didn’t have any living family to leave any money to and by the same token, she didn’t have any family to help take care of her in her old age.

Katie: Pretty soon, Barry started taking her to all of her appointments and then, he started making them. And then he got concerned that Mrs. Macefield, who was getting more frail by the day, was going to burn herself on her stove. So…

Barry: I just started swinging by there after work and making her dinner. She wouldn’t get a microwave so I guess I have to cook for her so she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Katie: Pretty soon, Barry was making her lunch and breakfast as well.

Barry: One day, I woke up and I’m making her three meals a day. And then I had to come in on Saturday and Sunday, because, you know, I had to make her meals.

Katie: Spending all of this time together, he got to know Mrs. Macefield pretty well. They’d listen to music together, watch old movies, and Mrs. Macefield also had crazy stories about her past.

Barry: She told me that she was a spy for the British government, that she had been captured spying and they put her in Dachau, and then she escaped from there.

Katie: She also said she’d taken care of a bunch of war orphans in England after World War II and on top of all of that she claimed to know a bunch of famous people.

Barry: She told me that Benny Goodman was her cousin and that she had met Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and had played, you know, saxophone and clarinet with them.

Katie: Her stories were so incredible that they were hard for people to believe but they were harder to dismiss than you might think.

Kathy: She came across to me as very sharp. She liked to talk a lot about the past but she also watched the news and knew exactly what was going on.

Katie: Barry took care of Mrs. Macefield for nearly a year and a half making all of her meals, visiting with her on weekends and after work. Sometimes she’d call in the middle of the night and tell him she’d had an accident and she needed him.

Barry: You know, she had very few wishes: One, she wanted to die in her house, you know, live out her last days in her house but if I wouldn’t have been there at some point in time, they would have put her in a state-run facility and there wasn’t any reason for that and then she’s going to be unhappy the last days of her life. And for what?

Katie: When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and began to die, she finally agreed to a home healthcare worker but Barry became her power of attorney. The person she put in charge of her final decisions.

Roman: Edith Macefield died in her house on June 15th, 2008. She was 86 years old. 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.

Katie: After she died, Barry began packing up her house and he looked for things that would confirm Mrs. Macefield’s crazy stories 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.”

[Music]

Katie: 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 Barry to know what his motivations were, but for what it’s worth, I did talk to a couple of the home healthcare workers who took care of Mrs. Macefield before she died and they both 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 Mrs. Macefield.

Roman: Barry eventually sold Edith Macefield’s house to an investor who had various plans for it, none of which have materialized, and recently the same guy asked Barry if he’d be interested in buying it back. Barry said no.

Barry: No, and if I did, Edith would probably haunt me for that. She told me to hold out until I got my price and then to, you know, use the money to help get my kids through school.

Katie: The house is all boarded up now, and no one is sure what will happen to it, which is sad to some people but Barry says Mrs. 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.

Roman: But, 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 in honor of the legacy of Edith Macefield. It is a picture of her little house, and underneath it the word “Steadfast”.

[Music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced by Katie Mingle. We are Sam Greenspan, Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt, Avery Trufelman, Sharif Youssef, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, an architecture and interiors firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with project superintendent, Barry Martin, journalist Kathy Mulady, and home health-care workers Karen Smith and Cathy Bailey for this story. . Featured image by Flickr user Milo Tobin.

Barry Martin wrote a book about his experience with Edith Macefield called Under One Roof.

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“Nightlite” — Bonobo
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“The Low Places”— Jon Hopkins
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Comments (41)

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  1. Brian

    Someone needs to make that little plot into a park with a PLAQUE telling Ms. Macefield’s story.

  2. you left out that on May 26, 2009, Disney publicists attached balloons to the roof of Macefield’s house, as a promotional tie-in to their film Up, in which an aging widower’s home is similarly surrounded by looming development.

  3. me

    As a former Seattleite, I appreciated the details that filled in this story. Here is another one from rapidly developing Ballard that is also pretty interesting: an historic boarded up Denny’s building that improbably made it onto the city’s landmarks preservation list (at the wrongheaded behest of the developer) shortly before it was demolished anyway, at which point the rubble-strewn lot sat fenced and vacant for years, a victim of the recession. The site is now an apartment building. http://www.historicseattle.org/advocacy/mannings.aspx

  4. The one house that shares the block with the Oakland (CA) Children’s Hospital parking structure is a holdout house.

    Honda headquarters in Torrance, CA had a crappy-looking auto repair shop in front of it for YEARS because the owner refused to sell.

  5. Todd

    I admired Edith’s dedication to her home, which should be more important than simply money. What doesn’t often get mentioned in this story is that for several years before construction began on the development, Edith’s house was the only one left standing on the entire block, with the rest of it being gravel and dirt. I, for one, couldn’t understand why someone would want to live on a desolate city block like that, but Edith was a holdout long before development was planned.

  6. Fiona

    I would love to add another intriguing holdout. It’s called Mary’s Place and it’s enveloped by Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, WA. I would love to hear your take on that story. It’s really very interesting.

    1. Mary

      Yes! I was reminded of “The Little House” too while listening to this story. One of my favorite children’s books.

  7. Lara

    I live in Ballard and saw that building go up–in fact a friend of mine is an architect who worked on the project. And not to quibble, but I wouldn’t call it a mall, precisely.

    Ballard has changed so much and continues to do so, much to many residents’ chagrin. For the most part, the density is happening where it should be–on arterials near transit lines. What is unfortunate is the trend of single family homes being torn down and replaced with a new single family home that maximizes allowable lot coverage and building height and dwarfs the smaller scale homes adjacent.

  8. JT

    Santa Monica has interesting houses here and there that look charmingly out of place next to large developments. There was a holdout next to Crossroads school for a long time, though they finally sold to the school. There was another holdout among the houses along Pearl St between 20th and 17th south of Santa Monica College, though that family finally sold too (not sure if that’s really considered a “holdout” since the school is keeping their house appearance despite using them as offices). There are 3 cool little houses south of SM Blvd on 23rd, surrounded by 2-story apartment buildings, a business, and a big medical building parking lot. Don’t know the story on those but they must be holdouts. A tiny duplex on 4th just north of Wilshire is another trippy looking property surrounded by big multi-story properties.
    I like the spirit of defiance with the holdouts but I’m baffled how they’re able to. I would think some bribe money to the right people and they’ll use eminent domain on the developer’s behalf. How can there be holdouts in China? Their govt would kick you out without thinking twice, I would think. How did the New York guy lose everything but keep a pizza-sized piece of property–why didn’t they just take it all at that point?

  9. Runa

    Canada Customs in the town of Fort Erie decided to build a bigger place to house not only Customs business but also several brokerages. They bought up several homes near the corner of Queen and Niagara but one family refused to sell. Every trucker who has to go inside to see a broker or to have a load inspected walks along the back fence line of this property after having driven their truck along the one side of the property. Check out 42.908990, -78.909868 on Google Maps to see it.

  10. Josh

    A famous Atlantic City holdout story recently ended (or started a new chapter).
    http://is.gd/wvOIwT
    Home owned by Trump holdout auctioned for $530,000
    Atlantic City homeowner fought developers for decades

  11. R Gale

    I have no verification but the story goes that a similar property war took place in Toronto Canada between a home owner and ESSO—I do know that the rumored house in question stood alone surrounded by ESSO corporate headquarters parking lot throughout 3 decades

  12. Curt L.

    The old Sears store in St. Joseph, Mo. had a house which was surrounded by the parking lot. This was in the 60’s. Don’t know if it is still there.

  13. stix

    This is going to happen in San Francisco on the corner of 1st and Mission st. Diagonal from the Sales Force tower. Demolition construction has not begun but there is a small unit there that refuses to sell and the developer decided to build a 900′ tower around it. They still have time to sell.

  14. Tammy

    I just loved this story…how a stranger reached out to her and ended up her closest friend and was blessed because of it.

  15. David

    Good heavens, now all I can think of is reading Where Yesterday Began. Someone needs to hunt that book down and share it with the world.

  16. Jawny Kash

    I grew up in West Seattle and always knew of Ballard as where many of my ancestors came from, Norwegian stock. My mother was born in the same era and what you described in Mrs. Macefield is mirrored in my mother. Her determination to remain where she was is exactly something people of that era would do. My own mother always thrived when she had independence. I was especially delighted by the first trip she took with the foreman…..to get her hair done! I live in Asia now and did not know of the story till your podcast. I was so delighted to hear that Mrs. Macefield’s last days were spent in the company of someone who cared for her well being. I hope followers of Roman’s stories will use this as an inspiration to spend time with family or neighbors who come from another era. I know Mr. Martin is glad he did. The stories Mrs. Macefield shared with him must be great treasures. Glad he shared them with us.

  17. In Amsterdam we have a similar kind of thing in opposite to the Central Station. I don’t know the exact story but a book has been written about it and a film is in the making.
    Around 1885 a big invester wanted to build a large hotel opposite to the, then under construction, Central Station. He had to buy out 10 houses but one of them refused. You can still see it today, in the facade of the Hotel. There are two small houses build around by the hotel.
    here is a photo:
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/49794120

    With kind regards,
    Bas from Amsterdam

  18. September 2015: Edith’s house needs help. There is a Kickstarter to try to raise money to save it from demolition in the next couple of weeks. I am not affiliated with the project–I’m just a big fan of Edith’s. Here’s the link. Please help. http://kck.st/1M3aR4o

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