The last days of a Victorian mansion in Harlem

The beginning of the end of the Victorian mansion at Fifth Avenue and 130th Street commenced in August 1936.

“Civic and fraternal organizations, individuals of prominence, as well as private citizens of Harlem have separately and in groups given voice to their objections to the City of New York, through the department of Parks, to use the site of the MacLean residence and property at 2122 Fifth Avenue for a playground,” wrote the New York Age on August 8.

“Popularly called the ‘Pride of Harlem,’ it is certainly one of the most beautiful of the old landmarks in the city.”

Beautiful it was: A red brick, three-story Victorian confection with a mansard roof, lacy ironwork, and a wide, welcoming front porch surrounded by lovely gardens.

Built in the 1870s when Harlem was still a village dotted with the country mansions of the city elite, it spanned the block and had been occupied since the 1880s by the family of Jordan Mott.

Mott was a descendant of the Mott Haven Motts; a prominent businessman who ran his family’s Bronx-based iron works.

After the turn of the century, Harlem became urbanized, and the mansion increasingly surrounded by apartment buildings.

By the 1930s, only Mott’s widowed daughter, Marie MacLean, remained.

Upon hearing the news about the demolition of her house, MacLean tried to fight back.

She spoke out through reporters, asking city officials that her home be converted “into a museum for Negro history,” stated the New York Age on October 10, and the gardens “be maintained intact for [the] benefit of aged women and small children.”

She also asked that she be allowed to “spend the remainder of her aging days in the reminiscent atmosphere of the home given to her by her father,” stated one letter to the editor published by the New York Times.

But her wishes were ignored. By October, she was forced out, moving south to 1081 Fifth Avenue as her house was condemned. The mansion soon met the wrecking ball.

A playground was built and named after Courtney Callender, Manhattan’s first African-American deputy commissioner of cultural affairs.

These days it’s a lovely respite of trees, swings, and jungle gyms—all of which hide the destruction of an old woman’s Victorian-era home and a neighborhood point of pride 80 years ago.

[Top three photos: Library of Congress, 1933]

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8 Responses to “The last days of a Victorian mansion in Harlem”

  1. richardlowellparker Says:

    Wow. When the authorities force an old woman out of her home and tear it down during her lifetime, that seems a bit harsh.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, a very sad story about the power of city officials. I believe Robert Moses was the head of the Parks Department at the time.

  3. Lady G. Says:

    Shame on them for doing that to her. Her idea for a black history museum sounded great!

  4. Tom B Says:

    Marie died in 1946, at 92. She must of lost her political clout after her husband, an American jurist died in 1924. Her new digs was a block north of the yet to be built Guggenheim. A definite upgrade in location.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    She certainly had the means to move and live the rest of her life quite comfortably. But she wanted to stay in her home of so many years, shared with her husband and family. I very much understand that.

    She also loved the neighborhood, and it seems like her Harlem neighbors embraced her as well.

  6. Tom Padilla Says:

    Was Marie left enough inheritance besides the house to engage help in keeping it clean and safe to live in? Did she have family checking in on her? What kind of assistance did she receive to be able to downsize prior to moving out? While I agree that she should have been, ideally, allowed to remain in the family house, this situation echoes many contemporary stories of elderly parents who lose a spouse and can no longer manage to live on their own. And in those cases, we are no talking about a historical large house.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I came across references to her having a household staff, but unfortunately I don’t know what she inherited, nor what condition the house was in. She had enough funds to relocate down Fifth Avenue, but perhaps not enough to maintain an aging Victorian mansion. Or maybe it was simply a land grab by the city. I tend to think it was the latter.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    Too bad they couldn’t combine the mansion with the playground, and make the mansion the museum she wanted. We roll over our history so much of the time.

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