The Skinny on Mamaroneck’s Skinny House
A new book celebrates the storied family history behind the 10-foot-wide home long before the Tiny House craze.
Photo By Bill Krattinger, NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Since its construction in 1931-1932, the 10-foot-wide Skinny House in Mamaroneck has endured as one of the remarkable architectural curiosities of Westchester.
Also known as the Nathan Seely House, after its African American designer, builder, and first owner, the oh-so-slender three-story gable frame house at 175 Grand Street sits on a 12.5-foot-wide sliver of land in the Washingtonville neighborhood of Mamaroneck.
After eight years of research and writing, in January, Seely’s granddaughter, Dr. Julie L. Seely, published a heartfelt and well-received memoir about her family and the red-shingled Skinny House, where they lived until the mid-1980s.
Dr. Seely’s book, The Skinny House of Mamaroneck, traces in detail her family’s ups and downs through much of the 20th century, including the Roaring Twenties, when her grandfather owned a very successful construction company in Westchester, and into the Great Depression, when he lost his business to bankruptcy and the family’s much grander home at 173 Grand Street to foreclosure.
Photos courtesy of skinnyhouse.org
Nathan Seely had built that house for his wife, Lillian, in 1926-1927, with the same top-quality materials and meticulous workmanship for which he was known. It even included central heating and indoor plumbing instead of the outhouses typical of the neighborhood at the time.
As millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and made their way north to cities like New York during the Great Migration, Westchester’s black population expanded dramatically.
In response to the demand for quality housing, in 1925 Nathan Seely and his brother Willard founded Seely Brothers Inc., a construction company focused on developing single-family homes, duplexes, and apartment buildings for African American clients. Their brochure, “Homes for Colored People,” described potential projects and outlined their business goals. The workforce included African American laborers, as well as immigrant Italian masons from their Washingtonville neighborhood.
At the height of its success, the company had a secretary and an attorney and owned six Mack trucks. Nathan drove a status-symbol Hudson Super-Six car, a classy blue-and-black motor coach ordered directly from the factory in Detroit.
But that all came to an abrupt end after the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
After losing their seven-room home at 173 Grand Street in 1930, Nathan and Lillian, along with their young children, Tom (Julie’s father) and Lillian (Julie’s Aunt Sug), were devastated and humiliated, Dr. Seely writes in her book. It was a horrible, life-altering experience for 10-year-old Tom and a blow that would eventually break up the family. Tom, later a mathematics professor, and his father were estranged for much of their lives, and Nathan and Lillian’s marriage collapsed under the weight of his joblessness and need for her to work as a maid for a wealthy Larchmont family.
Refusing to give up, the ever-resourceful Nathan Seely resolved to build a new family home on the tiny slice of land at 175 Grand Street. He drafted a detailed blueprint for a 10’x39’ house nestled between two larger houses and tucked far back from the curb. He then set about building a new, 550 sq. ft., two-bedroom home for his family, using his hands and cobbled-together lumber and other materials he salvaged.
photos courtesy of skinnyhouse.org
He made do, creatively forming the basement around a too-big-to-move boulder and framing the house around the family’s furniture and piano that would not fit through the narrow front door. He added three ornate gables to the front facing and a ledge for Lillian’s flowerpots just under the second-story window. He built a “library” compartment in the living room ceiling for the family’s books and his company’s ledgers. But indoor plumbing wasn’t added until the 1940s, forcing the Seelys to boil nearby well water and use a neighbor’s outhouse.
“It is a majestic house in its own peculiar way and quite the complex character in itself,” writes Dr. Seely, a physician, author, and screenwriter who lives in Ashburn, VA. “Although only 10 feet wide, the house claims its space and still shouts to all who see it: ‘I raised a family here! I come from sturdy stock!’”
Local lore has it that the land for the house was donated by Nathan’s next-door neighbor, Panfilo Santangelo. But based on her research, Dr. Seely is not convinced and wonders whether her grandfather retained a piece of his own property. Apparently, the transaction also involved a shady attorney who later went to prison for fraud.
By 1942, Nathan left Mamaroneck to work in New Haven, CT, and died in 1962. Lillian Seely lived in the Skinny House until she entered a nursing home in 1986. That year, the Skinny House was designated a Mamaroneck Village landmark, and in 2015, it was added to the prestigious National Register of Historic Places.
The Santangelo family bought the house in 1988 and used it primarily as rental property. Today, the house stands empty, having survived a termite scare in 2013.
“As for me, my work to help preserve the Skinny House continues,” Dr. Seely writes at the end of her new book. “I would like to have the house returned to the Seely family ownership long enough for it to be restored, then transferred to a nonprofit entity that will protect and preserve it for the next generation of history-seekers.”
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.