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Collyer Brothers' Brownstone

Central Harlem

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  • The Colllyer brothers are often cited as an example of compulsive hoarding associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as disposophobia or 'Collyer brothers syndrome,' a fear of throwing anything away. For decades, neighborhood rumors swirled around the rarely seen, unemployed men and their home at 2078 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 128th Street), in Manhattan, where they obsessively collected newspapers, books, furniture, musical instruments, and many other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to protect against intruders.

    Both were eventually found dead in the Harlem brownstone where they had lived as hermits, surrounded by over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.

The Collyer brothers, Homer Lusk Collyer (November 6, 1881 – March 21, 1947) and Langley Collyer (October 3, 1885 – March 1947) were sons of Herman Livingston Collyer (1857–1923), a Manhattan gynecologist who worked at Bellevue Hospital, and Susie Gage Frost (1856–1929); the Collyer family traced its roots to a ship that supposedly arrived in America from England a week after the Mayflower. They had a sister, Susan, who died as an infant in 1880. The family was descended from the Livingston family, an old and well established New York family with roots going back to the 18th century. They were well educated and both sons attended Columbia University, which had just relocated to its present-day Morningside Heights campus, about a twenty-minute walk from the Collyer house. Homer obtained a degree in admiralty law, while Langley earned a degree in engineering (though Columbia University claimed it had no records of his attendance), and made attempts at being an inventor. Langley also played the piano and became a self-styled musician with long, flowing hair, which was a rarity in this era. Over the years, as both brothers' eccentricities intensified, Langley tinkered with various inventions, such as a device to vacuum the insides of pianos and a Model T Ford adapted to generate electricity.

Dr. Herman Collyer, with his wife and two sons, moved into their residence in Harlem in 1909, when Harlem was an upper class neighborhood that was quickly becoming home to some of New York's wealthier residents. Dr. Collyer was known to be eccentric himself, and was said to frequently paddle down the East River in a canoe to the City Hospital on Blackwell's Island, where he occasionally worked; and then carry the canoe back to his home in Harlem after he came ashore on Manhattan Island. He abandoned his family around 1919, a few years before he died. No one knows why Dr. Collyer abandoned his family, or whether his wife moved with him into his new home at 153 West 77th Street when he left behind his house in Harlem. Nevertheless, Homer and Langley Collyer stayed in the family house after their father left. Dr. Collyer died in 1923, and Mrs. Collyer died in 1929. After their parents died, the Collyer brothers inherited all of their possessions and moved them into their house in Harlem.

When Dr. Herman Collyer originally moved to Harlem, it was a fashionable neighborhood. As the neighborhood's character changed, the brothers became an anachronistic curiosity and withdrew from the world.

Photo: March 1947 when the Collyers’ brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street was raided by the police.

Sites & Attractions: Historic Sites & Attractions Central Harlem

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