About Skinny House-A Memoir of Family by Julie L. Seely:
Part family biography and part memoir, Skinny House, is told from the perspective of the paternal granddaughter of Nathan Seely, one of the first African American homebuilders in Westchester County, New York. Nathan, an ambidextrous carpenter with a larger than life personality, establishes the Seely Bros. Construction Corporation during “The Roaring Twenties,” with the sole purpose of building “Homes for Colored People,” those blacks taking part in The Great Migration from The Deep South to New York, trying to escape racism, seeking jobs and better opportunities for their children. Nathan is well on his way to becoming a successful entrepreneur and it seems he has everything a man could want. He is a landowner and he has built a home in the Village of Mamaroneck along the picturesque Long Island Sound, where, “the sweet waters fall into the sea.” Along with his wife, Lillian, talented daughter Sugar and shy son, Tom, the Seely family is poised to become a part of the burgeoning black middle class.
However, Nathan’s success is short lived when in 1929 The Great Depression roars through America like a freight train, destroying everything in its path, leaving him bankrupt, and worst of all, threatens to make his family homeless. Humiliated and destitute after the bank forecloses on his home, desperate to save his marriage and keep his family together, Nathan has no choice but to come up with a plan to rebuild his life. He will have to do it, literally, brick by brick.
Nathan takes inventory of what he has left, a few pieces of furniture, the family’s beloved upright piano and his skills to work with his hands-to draft blueprints. Building is in his blood and one of the few gifts he owns that is not subject to repossession. He is determined to build something out of nothing.
Nathan decides he will build a new home for his family right next door in the shadow of his custom built home. Nicknamed the “Skinny House,” this 10-foot-wide home, built in 1932 from salvaged materials, still stands in the Village of Mamaroneck and for decades has captured the curiosity of people as far away as Europe. Gannett newspaper articles have focused primarily on the unique architectural details of the house, however the intimate story about the family who lived in the house has never been told. The author’s perspective as a granddaughter and daughter draws the reader closer to the heart of the story. How did Nathan manage to build this very odd house? He was very proud of it. Why was his son Tom so ashamed of the house? The author seeks to understand the perspective of each man and tries to make sense of her grandfather’s prideful legacy and her father’s secret shame.
This true story of one family’s rise, fall and survival during the Great Depression will provoke a universal question for all of us. What do we really know about the dreams and aspirations of our ancestors and is it really true that home is where your heart is?
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Dr. Julie Seely, author and speaker, is a graduate of Wellesley College and Tufts University School of Medicine. In 2010, she began a second career writing about the legacy of her paternal grandfather, one of the first African American homebuilders in Westchester County, New York. The publishing division of her company, Skinny House Press, aims to share untold diverse family legacies, one story at a time.