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date: 02 August 2021

Hoyte, Lenonfree

(04 July 1905–01 August 1999)

Hoyte, Lenonfree

(04 July 1905–01 August 1999)
  • Betty Kaplan Gubert

Hoyte, Lenon (04 July 1905–01 August 1999), doll collector and art teacher, was born Lenon Holder in New York City, the oldest child of Moses Holder, a carpenter, and Rose Holder, who sewed hats for infants for a Manhattan department store. The family owned a house on 128th Street in Harlem, and Hoyte attended public schools there. It was a comfortable childhood, but ironically the doll collector to be and her sister were forbidden to play with dolls when the younger girl, after chewing on the hands of their dolls, contracted lead poisoning. Hoyte studied both art and education at the City College of New York, earning a B.S. degree in 1937, and at Teacher's College of Columbia University. She had private art teachers as well, and she painted in media such as oil, casein, and watercolor. In 1930 Hoyte was hired to teach in New York City elementary and junior high schools, which she did for 40 years. She began teaching art and added puppetry and doll making.

In 1938 she married Lewis Hoyte, a pharmacist; they had no children. The couple bought a fourteen-room house at 6 Hamilton Terrace, becoming the second black occupants of the small enclave of three-story brownstones in Harlem built at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hoyte was always a collector, and she began filling her home with antiques, “cutting her teeth” with 1,500 china pitchers. The collection grew when her family home was razed in 1949 to make way for a housing project. A large crystal chandelier was the prize among the many objects she added. She also collected china, cut glass, samplers, and richly carved furniture. Hoyte continued to teach and to participate in church and sorority activities. On two occasions she organized exhibitions of her antique pitchers as fundraisers to purchase a new organ for St. Philip's, her church. Deeply involved in church activities, Hoyte at various times taught Sunday school, directed a girls' club, and served on the church's board for housing for the elderly.

Hoyte chaired several committees for her sorority, Phi Delta Kappa. In 1962 the sorority asked her to arrange an exhibition of dolls to benefit the mental health clinic at Harlem Hospital. The exhibition was a success financially, and it changed Hoyte's life. For the next three decades she collected dolls and their paraphernalia so earnestly that her collection became internationally known. At first Hoyte acquired her dolls at flea markets and garage sales. As her search became more passionate, she visited antique stores throughout the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. She chose dolls, she said, “when they speak to me; I know right away, just like people.” She believed, “It's important to save old dolls and toys because they show us what life once looked like” (New York Amsterdam News, 16 Apr. 1983). Hoyte delved into the history of each doll, and as a teacher she saw that the dolls stimulated children's curiosity about the past and provided a genuine interest in history (Encore, 6 Dec. 1976).

Besides the dolls, Hoyte collected dollhouses, doll carriages, tea sets, stoves, toy schoolrooms, books, toy pianos, and other musical instruments. She retired from teaching in 1970. That year, using the name her students gave her, she incorporated her collection as Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum, on display in the basement of her home. Visitors came by appointment only, and the entrance fees remained low for maximum accessibility. With about 2,000 dolls, museum space was tight. But collectors find room, and twenty years later the dolls possibly numbered 6,000 (New York Times, 9 Sept. 1999).

The museum was divided into five sections. The Americana Room contained handmade cloth black dolls of the antebellum South, numerous Shirley Temples, and others of American manufacture. The Schoenhut Room was devoted to the works of the renowned nineteenth-century doll maker and his Humpty-Dumpty Circus of forty animals and figures. The Collector's Room housed the rarest dolls by master doll makers, such as Léon Casimir Bru, Émile Jumeau, and Jules Nicholas Steiner, that ranged in size from miniature to over three feet. The Dollhouse Pavilion, with an electrified dollhouse, and International Dolls completed the museum.

Hoyte regarded cloth dolls as her specialty, and at one time she planned to write a book about them but never did. Highlights of the collection included wax-molded Nicholas and Alexandra of Russia in ermine and vermilion robes, an Edison talking doll, a doll of the Queen Anne period, an 1880 black Bru bisque head bebe in pink silk, and two “crying babies” of papier-mâché made by Leo Moss, a black doll maker from Georgia. The large number of black dolls was remarkable for its range over time, place, and medium. The doll dressed in silk tells one story, while the doll fashioned out of a small whisk broom and a nut tell another. Collecting works of beauty, rarity, and craftsmanship, Hoyte also tried to keep the collection current and included Barbie, Ken, and Muhammad Ali. A double doll of Flip Wilson and Geraldine was on the shelves along with the Three Stooges and W. C. Fields.

Dolls from the collection won many awards in annual competitions. During Black History Week in 1975 (changed to a month-long celebration in 1976), Hoyte showed twenty-four dolls at the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibition, Historical Black Dolls, remained on display for six months.

As the collection quickly grew in objects and popularity, Hoyte realized her one-woman operation would have to change. She began to envision a much larger and permanent space so it could be a tool for education, a place where both children and adults could develop their ideas of the past. She also wanted her home to remain as well, saying: “I want the house to stay as it is, to be used to foster love. There have been so many beautiful antique homes in Harlem, and so many collections, broken up. It ought to be left” (Encore, 6 Dec. 1976). But for museum accreditation she needed to catalog her holdings. In the mid-1970s the New York State Council on the Arts awarded Hoyte a small grant that enabled her to hire a part-time assistant. With help from the Community Service Society, Hoyte received a matching grant of $9,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1980s.

In 1990 New York City mayor Edward Koch presented the Mayoral Award of Honor for Art and Culture to Hoyte. Her home was burglarized soon after, and nine dolls were stolen. Later four of them, George Washington, Martha Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin, reappeared in the front parlor. She asked no questions, but some few years later she closed the museum because she was no longer able to run it. Hoyte sold thousands of her dolls before she put the rest up for auction at Sotheby's in New York. The auction on 16 December 1994 realized $742,854.


Sotheby's catalogue, The Collection of Lenon Holder Hoyte Exhibited as “Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum” (1994), contains an article from Dolls, Sept.–Oct. 1985 (Joseph Kelleher, “Her Home Is Her Museum”), and two autobiographical sketches by Hoyte, although they are short on dates. Copious photographs and detailed descriptions reveal the scope of the collection. Other articles with helpful information include Ernest Swiggett, “Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum,” Unique NY, Sept. 1975, pp. 19 ff.; Sandy Satterwhite, “Aunt Len's Fabulous Children,” Encore, 6 Dec. 1976, p. 36; Frank Hercules, “To Live in Harlem,” National Geographic, Feb. 1977, pp. 178–207; Anna Quindlen, “About New York,” New York Times, 13 May 1981; Carol Schatz, “Hoyte, Lady with Love for Dolls,” New York Amsterdam News, 16 Apr. 1983; and Jane Lusaka, “Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum: Collector Lenon H. Hoyte Creates a Lasting Legacy,” Orator, Winter 1993, pp. 3–4. An obituary is in the New York Times, 9 Sept. 1999.