Streetscapes/128th St. and Fifth Ave., Former Site of the Harlem House Where the Collyer Brothers Kept All That Stuff; Wondering Whether a Park Should Keep Its Name
Published: June 23, 2002
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.”