The House I Lived In

I grew up in a 100-year old, 13-room White Elephant that was boarded up for years after World War Two. It was the kind of shingled house one might find in the Hampton’s, but this one was in Bayswater, a part of the Rockaway’s that once was a summer getaway for prominent families. What made me think of this house was the book An Uncommon Cape written by Eleanor Brackbill, retired Education Director at the Neuberger Museum. The book is about a Cape Cod style house she and her husband artist Michael Torlen bought in Mamaroneck some twelve years ago.

It was an ordinary  house, she said, “one where George Washington didn’t sleep.” At first, she thought the house might be a Sears Roebuck mail order house, popular from 1908 to 1940.  Upon further exploration, Brackbill found it to be a McCalls Magazine house. The house and its plans were featured in the magazine in May 1937 and Brackbill found some 30 of them built in Westchester. Then, to add to the mystery, she discovered that the house had been moved from its original site to make way for the construction of Interstate 95.  Mounting curiosity turned to obsession as she tracked down 32 sequential owners of the new location, including the Richfields, Gedneys and Heathcotes. The initial owner was a Siwanoy chief named Wappaquewam.

Recently, as I listened to this house story, I felt a pang of remorse that I never thought to trace the genealogy of my old house, which some years later was destroyed by fire.  The Rockaway peninsula was also once inhabited by native Americans, in this case a tribe named Reckonwacky. It is said that Chief Tackapoucha sold land to John Palmer, and later families such as the Motts, Hewletts and Cornells were the landed gentry. It’s true that everyone has a story.  Now Eleanor Brackbill has convinced me that every house has a story. To find out how you can find your own house story, check out one of her book lectures listed on the author’s website.  Just be ready for research, research, research.

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