Here’s a piece of old New York for you ~ The Collyer brothers – Homer, born in 1881 and his brother Langley, born in 1885. They were the children of an eccentric gynecologist and a former opera singer. The family moved to a four-story brownstone, located at 2078 Fifth Avenue in 1909, where it is said that Dr. Collyer would occasionally paddle his canoe to work at the City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island. The canoe, his preferred method of transportation, he would carry to and from his home in Harlem at 128th Street.
Dr. Collyer and his wife separated in 1909, going their separated ways – he to West 77th Street, while his wife stayed in the brownstone with her sons. The brothers never married, and after their mother passed away in 1929, they remained in the townhouse.
The gregarious duo filled their days, Homer continuing to practice law, and Langley worked as a piano dealer. Both taught Sunday school at Trinity Church. But in 1933, Homer suffered the loss of his eyesight, and Langley quit his job to care for his brother. It was a time of turmoil, with the country suffering the effects of the Great Depression. Their neighborhood, which had been largely upperclass, was changing rapidly, and the two brothers withdrew.
Now living in a declining neighborhood, the brothers boarded up their windows after an onslaught of rocks being thrown by teenagers, and they wired the doors shut after several attempted home robberies. They booby trapped part of the interior and created tunnels from their now overgrown collection of junk. It is said that they lived in “nests” buried within the debris. As their home deteriorated, so did their health.
The eccentric behavior moved to new levels. Langley would leave the house after midnight, walking miles to obtain food. By 1937, their phone was disconnected, as was the electricity, water and gas. Langley obtained water from a pump in a nearby park, and attempted to generate electricity using a car engine! Their connection to the outside world came from a home-made radio.
Their behavior gained a lot of attention – The New York Times wrote about their hoarding; Consolidated Edison attempted to enter the house to remove two gas meters, and were met with – the reclusive brothers. Finally in 1942, the Bowery Savings Bank threatened to evict them for failing to pay their mortgage for three years! The police, when attempting to force their way inside, were met with a wall of junk from floor to ceiling. In the middle there was a clearing, where they found Langley, who calmly made out a check for $6,700, paying off their mortgage.
The police received an anonymous call in March of 1947, from a man who claimed he smelled a decomposing body coming from the ‘Collyer Mansion.’ Emergency workers arrived, and – unable to enter anywhere – began removing the overflowing home, floor by floor. After five hours, Homer Collyer’s body was found. Near his body, police found 34 bank account passbooks with over $3,000.
The emergency crew removed about 120 tons of debris from the brownstone in an effort to find his brother, Langley – they found everything from baby carriages, bowling balls, eight live cats, two organs, and the chassis of an old Model T to more than 25,000 books.
In April of 1947, a workman finally found Langley Collyer’s body. It was about ten-feet from where his brother, Homer was huddled, and died. it was thought that he was crawling back to his brother, bringing him food, when he tripped one of his own booby traps, and was crushed in the debris.
The house was declared unsafe and razed in June, 1947. Many books have been written about the Collyer Brothers – and the land where the Collyer Mansion once stood is now a peaceful pocket-park located on the northwest corner of 128th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem.
On view now along the perimeter of Collyer Brothers Park is the outdoor art installation, Julio Valdez: I Can’t Breathe, on view to July 10, 2022. Artist Reception on August 17,, 2021 from 5-7pm.