An Uncommon Cape: Researching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property

SUNY Press
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Three mysteries precipitate an investigation into an otherwise ordinary suburban property, revealing a past inextricably woven into four centuries of American history.

When Eleanor Phillips Brackbill bought her suburban Westchester house in 2000, three mysteries came with it. First, from the former owner, came the information that the 1930s house was “a Sears house or something like that.” Thrilled to think it might be a Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order house, Brackbill was determined to find evidence to prove it. She found instead a house pedigree of a different sort.

Second, and even more provocative, was the discovery of several iron stakes protruding from the property’s enormous granite outcropping, bigger in square footage than the house itself. When queried about them, the former owner told her, “Someone a long time ago kept monkeys there, chained to the stakes.” Monkeys? Was this some kind of suburban legend?

A third mystery came to light at closing, when a building inspector’s letter contained a reference to the house having had, at one time, a different address. Why would the house have had another address?

Her curiosity aroused, and intent upon finding the facts, Brackbill gradually peeled back layers of history, allowing the house and the land to tell their stories, and uncovering a past inextricably woven into four centuries of American history. At the same time, she found thirty-two owners, across 350 years, who had just one thing in common: ownership of a particular parcel of land.

An Uncommon Cape not only tells the story of an eight-year odyssey of fact-finding and speculation but also answers the broader question: “What came before?” and, through material presented in twenty-two sidebars, offers readers insights and guidelines on how to find the stories behind their own homes.

“A detective story set in her own backyard, Eleanor Phillips Brackbill’s book shows the rich stories even our own homes can tell us if we take the time to hear them. What to most looks like a common residential Cape-style home in a suburban neighborhood can tell us more about ourselves as New Yorkers than anything we learned about in school. This book is a testament to the value of historic preservation and an appreciation of all that is our past, including our victories, our failures, and our faults.” — Jay A. DiLorenzo, President, Preservation League of New York

“Eleanor Phillips Brackbill’s in-depth genealogy/biography of the house in which she lives and the land on which it sits is a brilliantly written model of superb research and storytelling. It recognizes the opportunity, perhaps the responsibility, to learn and record and pass along to future generations all that can be found out about the history of property for which we are transient stewards. Her Uncommon Cape is a perfect vehicle for bringing back to life four centuries of enthralling regional (and American) history while allowing many interrelated, but yet unsolved, mysteries to live on. Brackbill ably succeeds in convincing us that the past is not even past!” — Charles Duell, President, Middleton Place Foundation and author of Middleton Place: A Phoenix Still Rising

“Home ownership has become, for better and for worse, a profound part of contemporary American identity. Eleanor Phillips Brackbill delves into this terrain—quite literally—by piecing together the genealogy of her home, which she reconstructs through diligent archival detective work (and even the occasional late-night trek through the woods). As such, her study is as much about the craft of historical inquiry as it is about the vicissitudes of a particular chunk of real estate. With sidebars that offer research tips placed throughout the text, the book will be a useful guide for those interested in pursuing their own historical investigations.” — Michael Lobel, author of James Rosenquist: Pop Art, Politics, and History in the 1960s

“A page-turning read. I got totally caught up in the history of a county, a country, and a sturdy little house. Brackbill’s meticulous research fascinates and will cause me to dig into my own house’s story—its moves, its occupants, and its alterations.” — Lucy Hedrick, author and publishing coach 

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About the author

Eleanor Phillips Brackbill is former Curator of Education at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College—SUNY. 

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Additional Information

Publisher
SUNY Press
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Published on
Sep 7, 2012
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Pages
259
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ISBN
9781438443096
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Language
English
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Genres
Architecture / Historic Preservation / General
Architecture / Regional
HISTORY / United States / State & Local / General
HISTORY / United States / State & Local / New England (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT)
History / United States / State & Local / Middle Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA)
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The story of Harriet Smith Pullen’s early life, from her childhood journeys by covered wagon to her family’s subsistence in sod houses on the Dakota prairie where they survived grasshopper plagues, floods, fires, blizzards, and droughts is a narrative of American migration and adventure that still resonates today. But there is much more to the legendary woman’s life, revealed here for the first time by Eleanor Phillips Brackbill, her great-granddaughter, who has traveled the path of her ancestor, delving into unpublished material, as well as sharing family stories in this American story that will capture the imagination of a new generation.

After migrating by emigrant train to Washington Territory, Harriet endured typhoid fever and a shipwreck, then homesteaded among the Quileute people on the coast of Washington, where she married Dan Pullen, with whom she was an equal partner in ranching and managing an Indian fur-trading post before a life-changing series of events caused her to strike out for the north. In 1897, she landed in Skagway, Alaska, broke and alone after leaving her husband and four children in Washington, determined to make a fresh start and to reunite with her sons and daughter. Newly independent and empowered, she became an entrepreneur, single-handedly hauling prospectors’ provisions into the mountains where gold beckoned and then starting the Pullen House, an acclaimed hotel.

Later in life, Harriet would entertain her guests with fabulous stories about the gold rush and her renowned collection of Alaskan Native artifacts and gold rush relics. She achieved near-legendary status in Alaska during her lifetime and The Queen of Heartbreak Trail brings to life moments that are well known and moments that have never before been published—her arrest for holding a claim jumper at gunpoint, her grueling courtroom testimony defending herself against the spurious accusations of a malevolent employer, and, how, in her father’s words, she “turned out” her husband of twenty years.

For the house lover and the curious tourist, for the house buyer and the weekend stroller, for neighborhood preservation groups and for all who want to know more about their community -- here, at last, is a book that makes it both easy and pleasurable to identify the various styles and periods of American domestic architecture.

Concentrating not on rare landmarks but on typical dwellings in ordinary neighborhoods all across the United States -- houses built over the past three hundred years and lived in by Americans of every social and economic background -- the book provides you with the facts (and frame of reference) that will enable you to look in a fresh way at the houses you constantly see around you. It tells you -- and shows you in more than 1,200 illustrations -- what you need to know in order to be able to recognize the several distinct architectural styles and to understand their historical significance. What does that cornice mean? Or that porch? That door? When was this house built? What does its style say about the people who built it? You'll find the answers to such questions here.

This is how the book works: Each of thirty-nine chapters focuses on a particular style (and its variants). Each begins with a large schematic drawing that highlights the style's most important identifying features. Additional drawings and photographs depict the most common shapes and the principal subtypes, allowing you to see at a glance a wide range of examples of each style. Still more drawings offer close-up views of typical small details -- windows, doors, cornices, etc. -- that might be difficult to see in full-house pictures. The accompanying text is rich in information about each style -- describing in detail its identifying features, telling you where (and in what quantity) you're likely to find examples of it, discussing all of its notable variants, and revealing its origin and tracing its history.

In the book's introductory chapters you'll find invaluable general discussions of house-building materials and techniques ("Structure"), house shapes ("Form"), and the many traditions of architectural fashion ("Style") that have influenced American house design through the past three centuries. A pictorial key and glossary help lead you from simple, easily recognized architectural features -- the presence of a tile roof, for example -- to the styles in which that feature is likely to be found.

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From New York magazine’s architecture critic, a walking and reading guide to New York City—a historical, cultural, architectural, and personal approach to seven neighborhoods throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, including six essays that help us understand the evolution of the city

For nearly a decade, Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Justin Davidson has explained the ever-changing city of New York to his readers at New York magazine, introducing new buildings, interviewing architects, tracking the way the transforming urban landscape shapes who New Yorkers are. Now, his extensive, inspiring knowledge will be available to a wide audience. An insider’s guide to the architecture and planning of New York that includes maps, photographs, and original insights from the men and women who built the city and lived in it—its designers, visionaries, artists, writers—Magnetic City offers first-time visitors and lifelong residents a new way to see New York.

Includes walking tours throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx
• the Financial District
• the World Trade Center 
• the Seaport and the Brooklyn waterfront
• Chelsea and the High Line
• 42nd Street
• the Upper West Side
• the South Bronx and Sugar Hill

Praise for Magnetic City

“An intimate, seductive guidebook.”—The New York Times

“An enthralling new book makes clear that I’m not alone in my home-town infatuation . . . lends nuance, texture and historical perspective to my impression that New York City has never been so appealing or life-affirming as it is today.”—New York Post

“[Davidson] combines a keen intelligence, experience, observational skills, expertise (especially but not solely architectural), and an elegant writing style to make this beautifully produced book indispensable.”—Booklist (starred review)

“A street-level celebration of New York City in all ‘its perpetual complexity and contradiction’ . . . a worthy companion to Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City and the American Institute of Architects guides to the architecture of New York as well as a treat for fans of the metropolis.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Justin Davidson does more than direct our feet to New York’s hidden monuments. He explains the structure of the city with a clarity that would be bracing even for a Gotham habitué, but more than that, he finds the meaning in every building and byway.”—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of Far from the Tree

“Mr. Davidson’s exceptional knowledge of our beloved city is inspiring. Magnetic City is now my official chaperone.”—Patti LuPone

“Justin Davidson has a mind alive to every signal, and his brilliant prose style transmits that electricity in black-and-white type. He is thus born to the task of capturing the chaotic splendor of New York City on the page.”—Alex Ross, author of Listen to This

“Justin Davidson’s beautiful tours of New York City invoke and redouble our love of the metropolis.”—Jerry Saltz, senior art critic, New York
The story of Harriet Smith Pullen’s early life, from her childhood journeys by covered wagon to her family’s subsistence in sod houses on the Dakota prairie where they survived grasshopper plagues, floods, fires, blizzards, and droughts is a narrative of American migration and adventure that still resonates today. But there is much more to the legendary woman’s life, revealed here for the first time by Eleanor Phillips Brackbill, her great-granddaughter, who has traveled the path of her ancestor, delving into unpublished material, as well as sharing family stories in this American story that will capture the imagination of a new generation.

After migrating by emigrant train to Washington Territory, Harriet endured typhoid fever and a shipwreck, then homesteaded among the Quileute people on the coast of Washington, where she married Dan Pullen, with whom she was an equal partner in ranching and managing an Indian fur-trading post before a life-changing series of events caused her to strike out for the north. In 1897, she landed in Skagway, Alaska, broke and alone after leaving her husband and four children in Washington, determined to make a fresh start and to reunite with her sons and daughter. Newly independent and empowered, she became an entrepreneur, single-handedly hauling prospectors’ provisions into the mountains where gold beckoned and then starting the Pullen House, an acclaimed hotel.

Later in life, Harriet would entertain her guests with fabulous stories about the gold rush and her renowned collection of Alaskan Native artifacts and gold rush relics. She achieved near-legendary status in Alaska during her lifetime and The Queen of Heartbreak Trail brings to life moments that are well known and moments that have never before been published—her arrest for holding a claim jumper at gunpoint, her grueling courtroom testimony defending herself against the spurious accusations of a malevolent employer, and, how, in her father’s words, she “turned out” her husband of twenty years.

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