Collyer Mansion

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Jul 5 22:20:20 UTC 2006

None of my family was a firefighter, but in the '50s they frequently referred to my room as "the Collyer mansion" and "like the Collyer brothers."


Bapopik at AOL.COM wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Bapopik at AOL.COM
Subject: Collyer Mansion

The guy e-mailed me on July 4th, and I was at a wake, no less. I'm not sure
about the other regional terms.
'Collyers' Mansion' Is Code for Firefighters' Nightmare

Published: July 5, 2006

On the West Coast, some firefighters call it a "Habitrail house." In the
Midwest, it is often a "packer house." In parts of Nevada, it is a "multiple
waiting to happen," meaning a multiple-alarm fire.

But in New York City, and along much of the East Coast, a dwelling jammed
rafter-high with junk is referred to by rescue personnel, with dismay and no
small degree of respect, as a "Collyers' Mansion." As in, primary searches
delayed because of Collyers' Mansion conditions.
The phrase, as many New York history buffs know, refers to the legendary
booby-trapped brownstone in Harlem in which the brothers Homer and Langley
Collyer were found dead in 1947 amid more than 100 tons of stockpiled possessions,
including stacks of phone books, newspapers, tin cans, clocks and a fake
two-headed baby in formaldehyde.
The Collyer Mansion is not just a slice of urban lore and a monument to what
psychologists now recognize as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is, in New
York, an official term of art, taught in the Fire Academy to cadets learning
the potential dangers that can await in burning buildings.
So, on Monday, after 14 firefighters were injured putting out a three-alarm
apartment fire in Sunnyside, Queens, Deputy Chief John Acerno described the
scene this way: "They tried to open the door, and they couldn't get it open
because of all the debris that was behind the door. In Fire Department jargon,
we call that a Collyers' Mansion. There was debris from the floor to the
ceiling throughout the entire apartment."
The apartment's tenant, Vycheslav Nekrasov, was in critical condition last
night at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell hospital.
The Breaking News Network, a service run by scanner hounds that some news
outlets subscribe to, has sent out reports of "Collyers' Mansion conditions" at
least 10 times in the past three months.
Once upon a time, the Collyers were routinely invoked by frustrated parents.
"Every time my room was a mess when I was a kid, my mom would say, 'My God,
this looks like the Collyer brothers' house," said John Miller, the head
spokesman for the _F.B.I._
( , who
said he heard the phrase sometimes when he worked for the New York Police
Department as a deputy commissioner.
But as 1947 recedes ever further into the past, the facts behind the lingo
are fading. A spokesman for the Fire Department, Allan Shaw, who has been a
firefighter for eight years, recalled learning about Collyer conditions at the
academy, but punted when quizzed on just what the Collyers' Mansion was.
"Collyer, I believe, was one of those people who, I guess, at some point, had a
house like that," he offered.
However widespread knowledge of its origins may be, the term itself continues
to spread. An Internet search turned up references to Collyers' Mansions in
news and fire department sites in Manassas, Va.; Clinton, Md.; and
Cochranton, Pa. The Fire Department Web site in Clearwater, Fla., nearly 1,200 miles
from Harlem, noted that at a trailer and house fire this past April, "Companies
inside were experiencing Collyers' Mansion conditions as the fire
_Thomas Von Essen_
( , a former New York City fire
commissioner, said that the term communicated crucial information to new
firefighters. "What's dangerous is that all this stuff could fall down," he
said. "Or it could weaken the floors, and when you put water on it you could have
a collapse. You could fall into it and then you have a hard time getting
out. You could get caught behind it; your mask could get tangled. I could
guarantee you that people have gotten hurt in those kinds of situations."
Calls to about a dozen fire departments across the country yesterday yielded
a few regional variants on the Collyers' Mansion, though most department
officials said they knew of no special phrases.
Carl Kietzke of Seattle, the president of the International Fire Buffs
Associates, said that up and down the West Coast he had heard the phrase
"Habitrail house," referring to buildings there that firefighters have likened to
rambling, unkempt rodent cages.
Firefighter Scott Salman, a spokesman for the Boston Fire Department, said
that while the official term for excessive clutter was "heavy debris,"
firefighters privately refer to "pack rat" conditions.
By whatever name, said Jeff Crianza, an emergency medical technician in
Queens who moonlights at the Breaking News Network, Collyers' Mansions lurk
behind many more doors than the average civilian would suspect.
"I see it every day in E.M.S.," Mr. Crianza said. "It's a wonder more people
aren't injured in those places."
Anthony Ramirez contributed reporting for this article.

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