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Sondra Knight Covington dreams of reclaiming the Harlem home that has been owned by her family since 1925
If they had the money andtitle, Sondra Knight Covington, her daughter, Syreeta Covington Kammerer, and her son-in-law, Stephan Kammerer, know exactly what they would do with the building at 124 W. 132nd St.
“My husband and I would love to purchase the building and live in it with my mother and brother,” Syreeta said. “If we have children one day, that would be the fifth generation of my family to live there.”
For this family, it’s all about reclaiming a piece of property that they believe was rightfully theirs in the first place.
The chances of that happening are slim, even though 125 W. 132nd St. has stood vacant since 1994, when Sondra Covington was one of the last occupants evicted from the premises.
The reasons are myriad but boil down to one: a missing marriage license. Covington can find no record that her uncle Horace Knight and Lydia, the woman he called his wife, ever married.
Which would mean Lydia’s descendants could not have inherited the property, and later lost it when the bank foreclosed.
“There is no common-law marriage in New York State,” said Covington, who believes her uncle lived with Lydia but never married her.
Now listed by Wayco Realty for $750,000, the building remains precious to but legally and financially out of the reach of Covington, who visited often as a child and lived there off and on as an adult.
“We are the only family to own that house since 1925, so you see why I want to hold on to it if I can,” she said.
According to county court records, Ernest Knight and his wife, Eulila, bought the house on Aug. 7, 1925. They had four children, daughters Sondra and Barbara, and sons Ernest Knight Jr. and Horace.
Knight died — Covington is not sure of the exact date of his death — and Eulila married Charles Smith. U.S. Census data place him in the house in 1940.
In 1945, the couple legally converted the building to a single-room occupancy residence.
“We had boarders on the top two floors and lived on the bottom two,” recalled Covington, who is the daughter of Ernest Jr.
In 1966, Eulila signed a deed transferring the property jointly to his two sons. When Eulila died in 1969, Smith sold any claim he had in the house to his stepson Horace. Covington said her parents didn’t leave the house to their daughters because they assumed the girls would marry and have their own households.
After years of bachelorhood, Horace married his girlfriend, Lydia, on Aug. 27, 1966, Covington said. The couple had no children.
When Horace died in 1973, Lydia assumed sole ownership of the building, Covington said.
“Lydia said, ‘I’m the wife and the sole owner of the house,’ ” Covington said. “I thought Lydia was pretty nice until then.”
Before her death in 1985, Lydia willed the building to two nieces, whom Covington identified as Marcia Cozier and Marion McClary. McClary died a year later, leaving Cozier sole owner of the property. In 1988, she took out a $45,000 mortgage on the property from Greenpoint Savings Bank.
The bank foreclosed on the building a year later.
Covington had been living in the Bronx with her husband, William, and daughter, Syreeta, but moved back into the Harlem home when her grandmother died, paying her uncle Horace $85 a month for a kitchenette.
“That house was always a refuge for me,” she said.
Covington said she had no idea the house was in foreclosure until she was notified by sheriff’s deputies in 1989 that she, Marcia and the SRO tenants were being evicted.
Marcia was serving in the Iraq War, so the foreclosure was put off until 1994. Despite several Housing Court hearings, Covington said, she was evicted that July.
It was not until 1999 that another relative told Covington that Lydia and Horace never married. That would mean Lydia had no claim to the property. Because Horace and Lydia had no heirs, it would revert to Covington and her siblings.
Covington said she wrote to the lawyer who witnessed Lydia’s deed and asked for proof of the marriage. That attorney, who died two years ago, said the couple made an application to marry on Aug. 23, 1966, and married four days thereafter .
Covington said searches of city marriage records found no license for the couple, but she admits the couple could have married outside of the city.
Covington can’t prove her uncle did marry, nor can she prove he didn’t. Finding out would be expensive, with no guarantee that when the last brief is filed the building would return to Covington and her heirs.
Stephen Kammerer said that several attorneys they consulted called the case so convoluted that “even if we gave them $50,000 to take it to court, there is no guarantee it would come out in our favor.”
So the family is stuck in legal limbo.
“I must have some leverage in this building,” Covington said. “But we don’t have the money to chase it through the legal system.”