The Man Who Built a 40-Foot Spite Fence Around His Neighbor’s Home

Nicholas Yung considered himself a lucky man. A German who immigrated to the United States in 1848, Yung had worked hard to carve out a living for himself and eventually prosper as the owner of a mortuary in San Francisco. The business allowed him and wife Rosina to purchase a modest lot on the top of California Street Hill, where they built a quaint, cottage-style home and planted a beautiful garden. Every day, California sunlight and fresh air would stream in through their windows.

Yung had no reason to believe that anything could interrupt his idyllic life, or that any one person could somehow deprive him of the beautiful days he had worked so hard to enjoy. But Yung also hadn’t accounted for Charles Crocker, a very rich and very petty man who would eventually become both his neighbor and the bane of his existence. With enough lumber to build a 40-foot-tall, blighting fence around much of Yung’s property, Crocker and his spite fence became a legendary revenge tale, a tourist attraction, and a lesson in the danger of escalating tempers.

Spite fence enthusiast Charles Crocker. Wikimedia Commons

At 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, Charles Crocker cut an imposing figure. He had filled his bank account by being one of the "Big Four" barons behind the building of the Central Pacific Railroad. By the 1870s, he could afford whatever he desired. And what he wanted was to loom over San Francisco like a gargoyle.

Crocker and his wealthy partners began scouting California Street Hill for its scenic views and proximity to the city’s financial district. One of his "Big Four" associates, Leland Stanford—former governor of California and future founder of Stanford University—suggested that the area would make for a beautiful residential plot if a cable car could bring residents up and down the hill. Stanford arranged to have one installed, and soon a group of wealthy men, including Crocker, were buying up all the homes on their chosen blocks. By the time Crocker was finished, he had erected a 12,000-square-foot mansion. With its new, wealthy inhabitants, California Street Hill was renamed Nob Hill.

As the project neared completion in 1876, there was one nagging detail: On the northeast corner of the block, Nicholas Yung was reluctant to sell. His cottage was dwarfed by the mansions going up, but he had come to enjoy the neighborhood.

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Some say Crocker offered Yung $6000 for his slice of the block. After some deliberation, Yung agreed to sell the land for $12,000. Crocker countered with $9000; Yung declined. The other story is that Yung became irascible, agreeing to a $3000 transaction and then bumping up his price every time Crocker capitulated, first to $6000, then $9000, and finally $12,000. At this latter figure, Crocker was said to have balked, spewing profanity and walking away from negotiations.

With one or both men causing acrimony, the end result was that Yung was not moving. Crocker's workers were busy razing the entire block, creating a steamroller of activity that should have seen them swatting Yung’s cottage down like a cardboard box. In an ominous sign of his frustration, Crocker ordered his workers to arrange their dynamite blasts so that rock debris would pelt Yung’s house.

If the goal was to drive Yung away, it had the opposite effect. Yung doubled down, refusing to move. Crocker refused to raise his offer. The two men were at a stalemate. Although Yung's obnoxious negotiating methods didn't make him blameless, it was Crocker who had the means to provide a real disruption.

At a reported cost of $3000, Crocker had his workers construct a wooden fence on his land that towered over three sides of Yung’s home. With its 40-foot-tall panels, the enclosure acted like a window shade, blotting out the sun and cool air and immersing Yung in darkness.

While Crocker gleefully had gardeners decorate his side with ivy, Yung saw his beautiful garden wilt. Despite the obvious interruption of Yung's environment, Crocker’s “spite fence,” as the papers came to call it, was perfectly legal.

Without other recourse, Yung threatened to install a flagpole that would fly a skull and crossbones, an act of defiance that might help blight Crocker’s view; he also wanted to place a coffin on his roof, ostensibly for advertising his business, but clearly to agitate Crocker as well. He had some members of the media on his side, who condemned “Crocker’s Crime” and criticized the financier for using his immense wealth to bully a family of more modest means. The San Francisco Chronicle later called it a “memorial of malignity and malevolence.” Tourists would take the cable car and ride up to Nob Hill just to gawk at the massive fence. But Crocker wouldn’t budge.

In October 1877, the pro-labor Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) organized a protest rally near Crocker’s home. Condemning his hiring of Chinese immigrants, organizers led 2000 men through a demonstration. One man, known only as Pickett, stood up and admonished Crocker for the spite fence, telling him it would be torn down by Thanksgiving or the WPC would do it for him. But when WPC leader Denis Kearney was arrested on another site for inciting a riot, he told the press that his group had no reason to target Crocker or his fence.

If Yung harbored any hope that some vigilante justice would resolve the situation, it never came to pass. He and his family threw in the towel and moved out—but they still refused to sell the land to Crocker.

A look at the dark corner created by the spite fence. The Strand

Crocker may have thought the feud would end with Yung’s death in 1880. It didn’t.

His widow, Rosina, continued to rebuff offers to sell the now-vacant land, which was slowly becoming a place for empty cans and other garbage. After Crocker passed away in 1888, his heirs were just as unsuccessful in persuading Rosina to let the land go. In 1895, she tried to appeal to the city's Street Committee, arguing that the fence was a nuisance and rendered her property worthless.

The city agreed, but their legal counsel didn’t: There was no justification for having the Crockers remove the fence, which had been cut down to 25 feet after strong winds had repeatedly threatened to topple it over. (In or around 1956, California would put a law on the books prohibiting the construction of fences meant for the express purpose of irritating neighbors and/or obstructing their views. Most states cap the height of a fence at 6 feet for similar reasons.)

When Rosina died in 1902, the rivalry appeared to die with her. Her four daughters finally gave in to Crocker's descendants in 1904, selling the land—said to be worth $80,000—for an undisclosed sum. With no more neighbors to spite, the fence was torn down in 1905.

In retrospect, the Yung/Crocker feud would ultimately prove pointless. In 1906, an earthquake and related fire swept through San Francisco, gutting the Crocker mansion and neighboring buildings. Rather than rebuild, the family decided to donate the block to charity.

In a strange twist, the place where Crocker had once built a monument to spite and malice became a home for compassion and warmth. In donating the site, the Crockers opened an opportunity to erect Grace Cathedral, an Episcopalian place of worship.

Main image courtesy of Gawain Weaver Art Restoration and used with permission. Original photograph by Eadweard Muybridge and held at the Society of California Pioneers.

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

iStock
iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
iStock

The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
iStock

At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
iStock

Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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