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 of a large slice of pizza.
[Hess’s triangle is still there, at corner of Christopher St and 7th avenue in the west village. Credit: Sam Greenspan]
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 such as 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.”
["Nail house" in China Credit: Zhou Shuguang]
Around 2005, a Seattle neighborhood called Ballard started to see unprecedented growth. Condominiums and apartment buildings were sprouting up all over the community which had once been mostly single family homes and small businesses. Around this time, developers offered a 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.
[Edith Macefield’s house. Credit: Ben Tesch]
The architects designed the building in such a way that if Mrs. 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 one million dollars, plus they offered to find her a similar home somewhere else, and pay for a home health-care work for Macefield who was elderly and in poor health.
Again, Edit Macefield turned them down.
[Aerial view of Edith Macefield’s house (left of the green crane). Credit: Barry Martin]
The press loved Edith Macefield’s “David and Goliath” story of an old woman versus the big, bad developers. But even though 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.
[Edith Macefield and Barry Martin on their way to get her hair done. Photo courtesy of Barry Martin]
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 wasn’t mad about the way her community was changing. She wasn’t 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.
[Edith Macefield. Credit: Barry Martin]
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 work 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”.
[Domilini was Edith Macefield’s nome de plume. Image courtesy of Barry Martin]
As Martin got to know Macefield, she told him stories about her past that were so incredible that he found them hard to believe. For example, she said that she’d been a spy for the British during World War II, and that she’d been 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. And on top of all of that, she claimed that Benny Goodman was her cousin and that she had played music with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
Macefield played both saxophone and clarinet.
[Macefield as a young woman with her saxophone. Photo courtesy of Barry Martin]
Barry Martin eventually became Edith Macefield’s main care-giver — making most of her meals, visiting with her on weekends and even attending to her in the middle of the night if she called and said she needed him. She finally agreed to live-in nurse when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but even then, Martin became her power of attorney—the person whom she put in charge of her final decisions.
Edith Macefield died in her house on June 15, 2008, at age 86.
She left her house to Barry Martin—the construction superintendent who became her friend while simultaneously sandwiching her house between a Trader Joes 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 told 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:
[Correspondence from Benny Goodman to Edith. Courtesy of Barry Martin]
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 we did talk to a couple of the healthcare workers who took care of Mrs. Macefield before she died and they both had a very high opinion of him – 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’s 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.
[Macefield’s house in 2014. Credit: Kathy Mulady]
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’s a picture of her little house, and underneath it—the word “Steadfast”.
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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