Blog: My journey to share the 'Upside of a Breakdown' from New York to Fort Wayne

I get chills every time I read the story of Henry Collins Brown in the columns of the New York Evening Post from April 19th, 1929.

Henry was “the Human Interest Historian” of New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He founded the Museum of The City of New York on Fifth Avenue. But after a grueling journey to make it happen, he was cast aside from leading it—replaced by a younger man from outside of the New York area. This experience of being “robbed” of his life’s work resulted in Henry having a full-on nervous breakdown and undergoing three years of recovery in Bloomingdale Mental Asylum in White Plains, New York.

Then in 1937, Henry demonstrated how he was ahead of his time once again, openly sharing his mental health journey with the world via his memoir, “A Mind Mislaid.” His story is one of triumph and the cycles of life. But then again, maybe I’m a little biased; Henry Collins Brown is my great grandfather.

Henry Collins Brown, founder of the Museum of the City of New York, and his sons.

My name is Tim Brown, and my family and I have lived in Fort Wayne for five years. We initially came to Fort Wayne to help a company during a transition of ownership and ended up falling in love with “our town.” So we stayed here! I’ve even gotten involved in the community, as a member of the Mayor’s Age-Friendly Council.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as so many people across the U.S. and around the world are struggling with mental health challenges, I wanted to take the opportunity to share my great grandfather’s story and his ongoing legacy, connecting Fort Wayne to the Big Apple.
Tim Brown with his book, "The Upside of a Breakdown – A Man, A Museum, A Mental Institution and the Power of Resilience."
For the past several years I’ve been recounting my great grandfather’s journey to wellness in a book I’ve published, The Upside of a Breakdown – A Man, A Museum, A Mental Institution and the Power of Resilience. This has led me to the opportunity to share my great grandfather’s story in both Fort Wayne and New York. I look forward to working with the New York Historical Society and mental health worlds as “Henry’s Museum” (aka Museum of the City of New York) gets ready to celebrate its centennial in 2023. 

Throughout my great grandfather’s life, he wrote more than 30 books, documenting life and history in New York in the 1800s and early 1900s. His works include “The Valentine Manuals,” “Brownstone Fronts and Saratoga Trunks,” and “From Alley Pond to Rockefeller Center.” In his writing, he shares stories of the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration and of the creation of the Washington Square Arch (which I learned about in “Brownstone Fronts and Saratoga Trunks”). He explores how the five boroughs became NYC (captured so beautifully in “From Alley Pond to Rockefeller Center”).

Henry and I perhaps met briefly when I was a baby in the late 1950s. (He died in 1961.) But I feel very linked to him and to his legacy in New York today. In fact, I spent two years myself leading teams on iconic art projects for the Swarovski Company at Rockefeller Center in New York, helping to create the iconic Christmas Tree Star and Top of the Rock light sculptures.

In many ways, bringing Henry’s story back to life has become a purposeful passion for me, too, as I carve my journey, in my own community, in Fort Wayne.
 
While a lot has changed since the 1930s, and Fort Wayne sometimes feels like a separate world from Manhattan, Henry’s brave story of his own mental health crash and recovery spans state boundaries, cultures, and times. People still struggle with the stigma of discussing our mental health in 2022. And yet, with a pandemic, an ongoing war, and hate overwhelming us on a daily basis, I feel strongly that we must all work together to “be well.”

It was about one year ago on May 1st, 2021, the start of Mental Health Awareness Month that I reintroduced Henry’s story in The Upside of a Breakdown. As a result, I have been fortunate to have had many meaningful conversations about personal and collective mental health and the need to help one another discuss this important topic. 
Henry Collins Brown, writer and founder of the Museum of the City of New York.
So many important conversations are going on in Fort Wayne, and there are many organizations here dedicated to building strong brains, minds, and mental health. If you would like to have a cup of coffee and chat, please let me know. I can be reached at [email protected].

In the meantime, I will keep sharing Henry’s story as a tribute to a great man who loved his city—just as I love mine—and was bold in his battle with mental health issues and his willingness to share to help others—both then and now.

Henry was courageous, and I hope you get the chance to hear his story. By hearing how others have struggled and learned to cope with mental health challenges, we can all feel a little less alone.