Lenon Hoyte Biography
Became a Teacher, Founded Her Doll Museum, Attracted Collectors from Around the World
Museum founder and curator, teacher
After 40 years as an art and special education teacher in New York City public schools, Lenon Hoyte—commonly known as Aunt Len—founded Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum in her Harlem home. It was one of the nation's largest private collections of dolls and related toys and became one of New York City's most popular specialty museums during its years of operation between 1970 and 1994.
Became a Teacher
Hoyte was born Lenon Holder in New York City on July 4, 1905. She was the oldest of five children of Rose Pari (Best) and Moses Emanuel Holder. After attending the New York Teachers Training School, she began teaching in New York City public schools in 1930, where she remained until her retirement in 1970.She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in education from the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1937. In 1938, she married a pharmacist named Lewis P. Hoyte.
Lenon Hoyte remained a student as well as a teacher for much of her career. She earned her teaching certificate in special education from Columbia University in 1940. Over the following years she studied art at CCNY and Columbia, and with private teachers. In 1959 Hoyte earned her PhD equivalent from CCNY.
Between 1940 and 1950 Hoyte taught mentally disabled children. Between 1950 and 1970 she taught art, crafts, and puppetry. She was a lecturer at the Museum of Natural History and the workshop coordinator for the Workshop Center for Open Education at CCNY. After 41 years in her profession, Hoyte retired from teaching art at Junior High School 149 in the Bronx. Her decision to retire was explained in her obituary. The New York Times obituary by William H. Honan quoted Hoyte as saying: "When they started killing teachers, I got out."
Founded Her Doll Museum
In 1962 Hoyte was asked to organize a doll show as a fundraiser for Harlem Hospital. Following her husband's death, Hoyte's new-found passion occupied her retirement years. She traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean, visiting doll shows and collecting dolls and accessories from flea markets, garage sales, and antique stores. Hoyte referred to all of her dolls as her "babies," from the rarest antiques to well-used dolls with broken arms.
The year that they married, the Hoytes had bought a three-story brownstone at 6 Hamilton Terrace between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues in Harlem. In the 1960s they turned over a part of their home to Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum. The public spaces consisted of narrow passageways winding through the ground floor and basement of the building. From 1970 until 1994, Lenon Hoyte served as the museum's full-time executive director, president, curator, and tour guide.
Aunt Len's Doll and Toy Museum officially opened in 1974, with irregular hours several times per week. Admission fees never exceeded two dollars for adults and 50 cents for children. At one time the museum held between 5,000 and 6,000 dolls. Eventually it outgrew its space and Hoyte began to store her most valuable dolls in a rental across the street.
Attracted Collectors from
Around the World
In general Hoyte's collection was organized historically. However sometimes exhibits occupied glass cabinets with particular themes. The dolls ranged in size from one or two inches up to two-three feet. There were fine nineteenth-century French dolls made of bisque, an unglazed ceramic. There were rare, antique porcelain dolls and United States presidents and first ladies. There were numerous versions of Shirley Temple dolls, Barbie dolls, Betsy Wetsy dolls, and Cabbage Patch dolls.
Hoyte's collection included extremely rare black dolls from the nineteenth century. Among them were rag dolls made by slaves from scraps of fabric, muslin, and feed bags. A pair of papier-mâch́ dolls named Lillian and Leo had been made by Leo Moss, a nineteenth-century black handyman from Atlanta. Lillian and Leo had tears running down their cheeks. Legend claimed that after separating from his wife and children, Moss only made sad dolls. According to Hoyte's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, she once told reporters that these black dolls represented "the beginning of our heritage."
Hoyte had dolls from Africa, France, Germany, Russia, and the Philippines. One of her favorites was a baby doll with wide eyes and long eyelashes, carved out of mahogany in 1977 by a California artist named Patty Hale. The museum also included doll houses, doll clothing and costumes, stuffed animals, and tin toys. Harlem children, as well as collectors from around the world, delighted in Aunt Len's museum.
Hoyte also continued to design her own original dolls, for which she was awarded numerous blue ribbons. In 1983 her dolls were exhibited at several special art showings. Hoyte wrote a column, "Our Museum," for Doll News and continued to teach doll-making and produce doll shows. Proceeds from her doll shows were donated to St. Philip's Episcopal Church, of which she was a lifelong member.
In addition to her church and doll clubs, Hoyte was a member of Beta Epsilon and served as secretary and president of the Hamilton Terrace Block Association. She received numerous awards throughout her career, including a 1980 Self Help Neighborhood Award, a service award from the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc.; a Building Brick Award from the New York Urban League in 1985; an Educator of the Year Award in 1988 from the City University of New York; and the Mayoral Award of Honor for Art and Culture New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1990.
Sold Off Her Collection
In 1990 Hoyte's home and museum were broken into and at least nine dolls—including a priceless two-foot-tall English king—were stolen. Hoyte was broken-hearted. According to her New York Times obituary, she said at the time: "People any more don't let you live. You struggle to keep something up for joy and beauty, and you find yourself having to watch for thieves. It's not right." Soon after the break-in, four of the dolls—replicas of Benjamin Franklin, George and Martha Washington, and Abraham Lincoln—were returned to Hoyte's front room, broken but repairable. According to her obituary, she responded: "I don't ask questions about how. I'm just happy to have them back."
As Hoyte aged she was no longer able to care for the museum. She closed its doors in the early 1990s and began to dismantle her collection. Thousands of Hoyte's dolls were sold to dealers and private collectors around the world. In 1994 700 of her finest antique dolls were auctioned at Sotheby's. Prices ranged from $200 for a pair of German all-bisque dolls to "a black Bru pressed-bisque-head bebe doll," valued at $18,000. Hoyte died at the age of 94, on August 1, 1999, in a New York hospital.
In 2002 Alva Rogers' The Doll Plays premiered at the Actor's Express in Atlanta, Georgia. A tribute to Lenon Hoyte, the play depicted Hoyte on her deathbed, with dolls acting out her life, as well as presenting their own histories as toys and collectibles. A fancy French doll described her feelings as a discarded toy and a Grace Kelly doll recalled her transition from Hollywood glamour girl to Princess Grace of Monaco.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 11, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1999, p. A18.
New York Times, January 2, 1989, p. A16; September 9, 1999, p. C22.
Newsday (Long Island, NY), May 28, 1991, p. 25.
"Toys in the Attic," Creative Loafing Atlanta, http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2002-01-23/arts_theater.html (December 21, 2004).
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