An Uncommon Cape


The suburban New York City house
Eleanor Phillips Brackbill bought in 2000 came with three mysteries. First, from the former owner, was a claim that the 1930s house was “a Sears house or something like that.” It turned out to have 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? Could monkeys even survive in the climate of the Northeast? A third mystery came to light at the closing, when a building inspector’s letter surfaced containing a reference to the house’s former address. Why would the house have had another address?

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


“Eleanor Phillips Brackbill asks the walls of her house to speak. Then she goes on to query the rocks and trees, roads and waterways that surround her home. She gets many answers—producing along the way a remarkable story of historical detective work. Her intended audience is homeowners seeking to research their own homes, but the book is also broadly useful to students and teachers of public history, as well as historic site managers seeking to broaden the interpretation of their properties. . . . As Brackbill puts it, ‘A genealogy of a piece of land . . . is democratic and offers a heritage available to everyone—everyone lives somewhere’ (177). . . . She shows how to make connections between the specifics of one place at one time and broad processes of historical change and agency.”

Excerpt from CYNTHIA M. KOCH, “Book Review: An Uncommon Cape: Researching the Histories and Mysteries of a Property,” The Public Historian, vol. 36, no. 2 (May 2014), pp. 129-30.

More Praise for An Uncommon Cape

“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


To find out more, click here: An Uncommon Cape.

Click here for a short video interview, “Author Uncovers Eight Years of Architectural Research”