On a recent Saturday afternoon, I rang a doorbell, asking if anyone could tell me about the red house next door called the Skinny House, as the Narrow House at 175 Grand St. is affectionately called.
This Washingtonville neighborhood attraction has local landmark status. Built in 1932, it is the slimmest house in Mamaroneck, measuring only 10 feet wide, yet is three stories high. It's 39 feet long, and rests on a 12 ½ foot wide parcel of land.
Old-world generosity in 2010
A pretty redhead named Nancy Picarello answered and said, "Let me take you next door to my mother."
We stepped into a large, shared backyard with fig and walnut trees, herb gardens, flowers and a statue of St. Mary. It felt like a piece of paradise brought from Italy--except for the nearby roar of I-95, but after a while, the highway dropped away.
We entered the home of Ida Santangelo, daughter of the man who made the Skinny House possible. "Sit with us!" insisted Santangelo, 87, pulling out a chair at her big kitchen table. "I love talking to people about the house," she said, presenting letters and news clippings with fresh enthusiasm. "People come from all over the world to see the house." One letter was simply addressed, "Skinny House Lady."
"My father was a very generous man. Do you know the story" Santangelo asked me.
In a time of crisis in 1932, a neighbor steps in
Historical literature presents the story as representing "black enterprise and good neighborliness."
Panfilo and Mario Santangelo, Italian immigrants, lived in the house where Ms. Picarello currently resides with her husband Tom (and raised a daughter and a son). They had six children—the second was Ida. Panfilo worked in construction.
Nathan Seely's family lived next door, at 173 Grand St. Seely was a contractor who built many houses on the block. "He was part Native American, part African American," remembered Santangelo, "and his son Tom was gorgeous. We were all after him." The Seelys also had a daughter, Lillian.
Seely went bankrupt during the Depression and lost his home. Mr. Santangelo gave him a piece of land between the houses, measuring 12 ½-by-100 feet, in exchange for $1 to form a contract.
Turning scraps into fine building materials
Seely used salvaged pieces to built the house, which explains the myriad of designs. Santangelo was ten years old. "I don't remember it being built," she said, "but I know the stories."
A chicken coop was employed to be part of the living room. A center beam in the basement is a rusted railroad track. Walls are made of paperboard hammered into wood scraps.
Mr. Seely's resourcefulness shows in the house's utility. There is a cellar. The first floor has a living room, small kitchen and pantry. The second floor has a bedroom and bath; upstairs is another bedroom.
For anchoring in high winds, Seely ran cables from the side of the house to the ground.
In 1984, Santangelo bought the house for $30,000 from Seely's daughter, who was in a nursing home, returning the property to her family. She rents out the house.
Santangelo used to keep books for visitors to sign, but they filled very quickly. "One day I saw that one name was David Berkowitz. Do you think..." she wondered, thinking about the notorious New York City serial killer.
A pause filled the air, then everyone shook their heads: "Nah, probably not…"
An old article claimed the house was haunted, since in the photo, the house was missing the second story. "No one could ever recreate that photo," confided Santangelo.
Upon close examination, perhaps that was because someone had scissored out the second story, and photographed the mockup.
Everyday, there's a visitor
Before the wall was installed next to I-95 ten years ago, interstate drivers would glimpse at the tall house on a hill and pull off to find it. Nonetheless, visitors from around the world make pilgrimages. "Everyday someone stops to look, said Picarello.
Several times a month, people get out of their car, and both women greet them.
"I love meeting visitors, " said Santangelo. "They're such nice people. One couple came from Paris and said the house is known in art circles there."
For decades, elementary school children have arrived on field trips. In 1986, one wrote, "At first I didn't see it, but when I did, I thought, how could anybody live here?"
For the future
Asked if she'll continue to share the history of the house, and keep it in the family, Santangelo said, "Yes, but it's really up to Nancy from now on." She stood to clear the table, shrugged and matter-of-factly said, "I'm 87. What do you want?"