At a virtual hearing by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) last Tuesday, more than 40 people testified in favor of the designation for the historic Downtown Brooklyn site. The commission also received more than 70 letters in support of the move.
Only one person testified against the landmark designation at the hearing.
According to Kate Lemos McHale, LPC’s director of research, 227 Duffield Street was the home of Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, documented abolitionists who moved to Brooklyn from Rhode Island in 1839.
The couple owned and lived in the Downtown Brooklyn home from 1851 to 1863. The property remained in their family until 1921. Despite adding a two-story commercial extension in 1933, the house still retains its 19th century form and historical fabric, McHale said.
The Truesdells were both active in the abolitionist movement, and were associated with organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the group’s weekly newspaper.
They were acquaintances of William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist who even documented a visit to the home.
After Harriet died in 1862, Thomas moved to New Jersey but the home reamined in the family until 1921.
McHale said Brooklyn’s waterfront and large population of free African-Americans at the time made it a hub of abolitionist activity, such as political activism, fundraising, writing and publishing.
The waterfront became an entry point for freedom seekers, who came on ships to escape slavery in the south. Many were sheltered by Brooklyn abolitionists participating in the Underground Railroad network, as they either stayed or traveled north to upstate New York, New England or Canada.
McHale said although documenting Underground Railroad activity is difficult, given its “secret and clandestine nature,” several sites in Brooklyn, including the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, have documented associations with the network.
“Recent verbal accounts of 227 Duffield being a stop on the Underground Railroad have not been confirmed after extensive research and physical analysis,” she said. “However, the building has significance as a rare example of a property associated with the Truesdells, and represents Brooklyn’s important legacy of abolitionist activity.”
The LPC’s research department has recommended 227 Duffield Street’s designation as an individual landmark.
Attorney General Letitia James, who represented the area as a City Council member, has been involved in the effort to preserve the Downtown Brooklyn site for years.
“As luxury developments and sky-high towers crop up all over Downtown Brooklyn,” James added, “it is our responsibility as New Yorkers to ensure we do not build over this important piece of the past.”
James paid tribute to “Mama Joy” Chatel, longtime activist and owner of 227 Duffield Street, whose efforts convinced the city to co-name Duffield Street as “Abolitionist Place” in 2007. Chatel passed away in January 2014.
In 2007, Chatel helped fight back against a plan by the city to seize the home through eminent domain to make way for a park and an underground garage.
She believed that 227 Duffield, 231 Duffield Street, 436 Gold Street and other Downtown Brooklyn sites were stops on the Underground Railroad because they were connected by tunnels. Chatel even opened up her home to visitors to see the tunnels.
James said in her testimony that the courage, sacrifices and achievements of Mama Joy should be preserved and celebrated.
“227 Abolitionist Place stands out as the type of monument we should honor and preserve, and from which our children should learn about our history,” she said. “To do so is to stand on the right side of history, both for our ancestors and for our future generations.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams also submitted testimony to preserve the site.
“What was once a cluster of rare, surviving 19th-century abolitionist homes has been diminished to a single building,” he wrote. “Retaining 227 Duffield Street celebrates an important cultural recognition of the Truesdells’ abolitionist leanings during a time when being proactive in aiding Black lives mattered more than the risks of breaking the law.”
In addition to the dozens who testified in favor, 16,777 people have signed a change.org petition to make 227 Duffield Street a landmark.
The lone dissenting testimony came from Garfield Heslop, counsel to the current owners of the property.
Heslop argued that “no one is more attuned” to the historical significance of the building than the owners, whom he argued purchased the site with its history in mind. He said part of the development plan is to create a museum that would allow the general public to enjoy the legacy of the site.
“We believe the best way to do so would be to allow the property to be developed, to allow the creation of the museum,” Heslop said, “and to allow us to uphold and honor the history and heritage of the building.”
If the building is landmarked, the attorney argued, then it cannot be developed and it would no longer be a “viable commercial project.” Neither the commission nor the city would then be able to force the owner of the site to allow the public to visit, he said.
“It would completely eviscerate the intent and purpose of the development project,” he said.
Heslop further stated that his client has already invested $3 million into the property, and has a mortgage that would be “decimated” if the site is landmarked.
“That would effectively bankrupt my client,” he said, “who is a very small developer and depends on this for his livelihood.”
Advocates who testified claimed that the owners of the property have not shown any interest in the history of the site.
“The new owners have never reached out to any of the historical advocates,” said landmark supporter Raul Rothblatt. “They’ve never shown any interest in the history.”