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Collyer Brothers Park in Harlem

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Collyer Brothers Park in Harlem

Postby consigliere » Sat Jun 22, 2002 5:17 pm

Here's an interesting story, Wondering Whether a Park Should Keep Its Name, by Christopher Gray, from the June 23rd Real Estate section of The New York Times:

What did the Collyer brothers ever do for Harlem? That's the question asked by the Harlem Fifth Avenue Block Association, which seeks to rename the tiny park at the northwest corner of 128th and Fifth Avenue. The group would like to see plaques go up with the legend Reading Tree Park, but, for the near term at least, the park will continue to memorialize Homer and Langley Collyer, two of New York's most reclusive hermits.

Harlem began as a small village in the 1840's but by 1879 -- when the developer George J. Hamilton built his row of five row houses at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street -- it was almost fully built up. Hamilton's architect was George B. Pelham, who had been born in England but came to New York in 1871. Pelham's houses, built for $12,000 each, were typical neo-Grec-style buildings of the period, with the customary high stoop. Hamilton occupied the corner house, 2078 Fifth Avenue.

In 1909, the Hamilton family sold the house to Susie G. Collyer. The 1912 city directory lists her in the house with her husband, Herman L. Collyer, and their sons, Homer, born in 1881, a lawyer, and Langley, born in 1883, a musician.

In 1923, Dr. Collyer died, followed by his wife in 1929. Later press accounts indicate that the gas and electricity were cut off around that time, apparently with the sons' consent.

In 1938, Helen Worden, a reporter for The New York World-Telegram, interviewed Langley Collyer, who told her: "We've no telephone, and we've stopped opening our mail. You can't imagine how free we feel." Worden, who subsequently wrote about the Collyer brothers (using the name Helen Worden Erskine) in her 1954 book "Out of This World," became interested in the Collyers because they had become known as hermits.

Langley would not let her into the house but told her that, yes, there was a canoe in the basement -- his father used to paddle down to the hospital where he worked every morning and back in the evening, he said. Langley also explained his shabby dress: "I have to dress this way. They would rob me if I didn't." Her book also says that he said he had stopped playing after a concert at Carnegie Hall: "Paderewski followed me. He got better notices than I. What was the use of going on?" She said Langley had a "low, cultivated voice."

In the 1920's, Homer had a regular job in a title research office, but walked eight miles to and from the office every day. But by the time Worden became interested in the Collyers, he was blind and almost paralyzed, cared for exclusively by Langley.

Mounds of debris were visible through the windows, and the brothers were disturbed in 1939 when Con Edison workers forced their way in to remove two old gas meters, an event that attracted a crowd of 1,000, according to an article in The New York Times. Statements from Langley in this period indicate he was very afraid of burglars.

IN 1942, the police, trying to carry out an eviction order, removed the house's front door. The brothers had stopped making payments on a $6,700 mortgage, though they had plenty of money to do so. Some accommodation was made, and they remained. Then the Internal Revenue Service seized another house they owned -- at 2077 Fifth Avenue, across the street -- for failure to pay taxes. On March 21, 1947, the police got an anonymous call saying that Homer Collyer was dead. The interior of 2078 Fifth Avenue was stuffed so high with papers and furniture that the police had to enter the house on the second floor by a ladder. They lowered Homer's body out the window in a sack. It appeared that he had died of hunger.

Langley Collyer had last been seen a few days before on the stoop of the building, but there was no sign of him now. Meanwhile, searchers began cleaning out the house. In the next few days they found the jawbone of a horse, a flier protesting the vote for women, unfinished knitting left by Mrs. Collyer, part of an auto chassis, pianos, furniture, papers and thousands of books, all while searching for Langley Collyer. By March 24, about 2,000 people had gathered at the corner of 128th and Fifth Avenue to watch.

There were 53 people at Homer Collyer's burial on April 1 at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn -- but no sign of Langley. Then, on April 8, it turned out that Langley had died in the building. Police found his body, wedged to the floor by one of the many booby traps he had created. Bringing food to Homer by a tunnel through stacks of books and newspapers, he had triggered the fall of hundreds of pounds of debris that trapped and, apparently, suffocated him. The brothers died within a few feet of each other.

Worden recorded what Langley had been wearing: a tweed jacket over blue-gray dungarees, over brown pants, over khaki pants and blue big overalls, with no underwear, but an onion sack worn like an ascot, and a gunnysack pinned to his shoulders.

In July, the house was demolished, after the last of 15 tons of material had been removed. In 1965, the 0.34-acre site became one of the city's first vest pocket parks, a project financed by the philanthropist Jacob M. Kaplan.

In the 1990's, Henry Stern, then the parks commissioner, named it Collyer Brothers Park. Surrounded by a tall iron fence and with rich turf and stately trees, it is not open regularly. But Celia Moultrie, president of the Harlem Fifth Avenue Block Association, says the group has had Christmas tree lightings in the park in the last two years.

Mrs. Moultrie has been working to open the park in the daytime in late June and July to encourage reading. Not only will people be encouraged to come in to read, but she is working on collecting books to give to neighborhood schools and programs for younger students, and is encouraging those willing to donate quantities of new books to call her at (212) 369-2080.

This spring, she made a proposal to Community Board 10 to eliminate the Collyer name, in favor of the Reading Tree Garden. "They did nothing positive in the area, they're not a positive image," Mrs. Moultrie said of the Collyers. The Parks subcommittee passed the motion, but it failed at the full board, by one vote. "We'll continue to push the reading, but I was very disappointed," Mrs. Moultrie said.

Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, says that his agency is flexible on the name of the park but adds: "Sometimes history is written by accident: Fort Tryon Park is named for a British governor, so there are some historic names that are not necessarily celebrated. Not all history is pretty -- and many New York children were admonished by their parents to clean their room `or else you'll end up like the Collyer brothers.' "

The Harlem historian Michael Adams thinks the Collyer name is significant enough to remain. He grew up in Ohio, and he recalls his grandmother admonishing him, "Get in there and clean your room -- it looks just like the Collyer brothers."


The Collyer brothers died in the corner house, at 128th and Fifth, in 1947. The interior was stuffed with papers and furniture and the police had to enter by ladder. Later, they emptied debris. The site is now a park.

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Re: Collyer Brothers Park in Harlem

Postby Cranky Tenant » Sat Jun 22, 2002 7:23 pm

What a wonderful New York story. Personally I think it's much more interesting when park names reflect a little local history - positive or not. Thanks for posting.
I'm a cranky tenant NOT a cranky lawyer.
Cranky Tenant
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