A museum of their lives

A museum of their lives

Maud, Mattie and Jacqueline were school teachers like their mother. Charles, a social worker, had been an Air Force officer during World War II. Randolph, named for their grandfather Randall Bell, who had been born a slave, was an electrical genius who worked in shipyards.They were all single – Maud and Jackie, as she was known, had been married and divorced – in 1966, the year they pooled their resources and bought the estate. With 30-odd rooms, a 45-foot-long living room and nearly 20 acres of land, the place cost $155,000, ample change for the times, but it solved a unique problem: how to house six singular adults and one child, Jackie’s 2-year-old son.

In the late 1960s, another sister, June, a former model who had been in the Air Force, moved in after her divorce, and then there were eight. (Their brother James, a noted adolescent psychiatrist who had worked at West Point, also invested in the place and spent weekends there.)

“Growing up, I always thought I wanted a ‘normal’ family, a mom and a dad in the same house,” James Moorhead was saying the other day, wandering through rooms that still wear their period costumes: a '40s bedroom set in June’s suite, a silver go-go dress in Mattie’s closet, a stack of Look magazines in the octagonal paneled library (and on the same table, three folded American flags from three military funerals). Moorhead, now 47, was Jackie’s son, but all the siblings doted on him. Mattie taught him French and science; Maud focused on current events and ancient Greece. Charles loved politics and pop culture.

And Randolph (Rand for short) was Moorhead’s constant companion, driving him to music lessons and to school, talking with him as he worked on the house. Rand was the systems guy, the tinkerer, fixer-upper and landscaper, bright, patient and kind to a small boy.All the siblings gardened with brio – Rand’s garden was heart-shaped – and Maud kept chickens. Moorhead described a house crowded with strong opinions and spirited debate. And the parties! There were cast parties for the drama students Maud taught, and political and civic rallies – Maud was the head of the local chapter of the NAACP.“They all talked about everything all the time, and they never muted their behavior for me,” Moorhead said. “It forced me to think, to learn critical thinking. At the same time, nobody ever said they were too old to play catch.”They taught him, too, about the roadblocks of racism, still formidable in this country in the mid-20th century and beyond, and the family’s response, which was to power on ahead. 

An oft-told story recalls one afternoon when the siblings were house-hunting here. They had been living in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, home to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. When they arrived in separate cars at a prospective house, the real estate broker took one look at them and announced that she had lost her keys and couldn’t show the house.Maud also liked to recall the day she applied for a teaching job in Riverdale and was told she wasn’t qualified, despite her master’s degree in English and fluency in three languages.

“She marched right into the Board of Education offices, and I can only imagine what she said,” Moorhead said.

“But as the story goes, the next day she had the job. Possibly on some prescient level, the administrators couldn’t fathom the thought of three Bell sisters all teaching in the same school, as Maud, Mattie and my mother all ended up there.”

Lucy Bell, his grandmother, was proud that she had sent all eight of her children – there was another Bell sibling, also named Lucy, who did not live in the house – to college and beyond (three earned advanced degrees) during the Depression, a time when many families could only manage the tuition for one child, if that. (Lucy and her husband, Charles, were also college-educated in the early 1900s.)

Mattie died in 2007; June went last September, and Jackie in January. But like the gold wall-to-wall carpeting Moorhead and McCluskey are painstakingly ripping up – having “stabilized,” as Moorhead put it, structural issues like the roof and the plumbing – their personalities loom large and are hard to excavate. Faced with the records of all those extraordinary lives, what do you save and what do you throw away?

“The histories are priceless,” said Tom McMahon, a plumber who has been caring for the pipes and more here since the mid-1990s.