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Bed-Stuy councilmember joins fight to preserve 441 Willoughby Ave.

photo of people at rally outside 441 willoughby avenue
Councilmember Chi Ossé stepped in to the ongoing fight to landmark the historic 441 Willoughby Avenue on Tuesday, saying it would be the “best decision” to preserve the property.
Anna Bradley Smith

In the eleventh hour of the race to save the 122-year-old mansion at 441 Willoughby Avenue in Bed Stuy, Council Member Chi Ossé has joined the chorus with an email to the Landmarks Preservation Commission calling for the historic building’s landmarking.

“I wanted to reach out to you to let you know that I am in full support of landmarking 411 Willoughby. After discussing with community advocates and residents of the block, I believe that this is the best decision for all,” Ossé wrote in the email sent on June 7.

With the support of the local council member, the chances for the LPC calendaring the building (the only thing that can delay demolition) are increased. Currently, the French Gothic house built in the 19th century for successful meat purveyor Jacob Dangler and his family is facing demolition by developer Tomer Erlich, who applied for demolition permits in March of this year.

Erlich told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication Brownstoner last week that he is in the process of buying the mansion and that he plans to demolish it in coming weeks, once the permits are issued. The demolition recently passed a pre-inspection, he said, and records show he has been granted permits to install a sidewalk shed and lighting. Erlich said he has plans to build apartments on the site, adding he would work with the community to include some affordable units and/or a community space. So far, no applications for new building permits have been filed with the Department of Buildings.

According to city records, 441 Willoughby Avenue is still owned by the masonic organization the United Grand Chapter Order of the Eastern Star (OES). A masonic chapter first purchased the house in 1967, and the deed was transferred to the OES for $40,000 in 2003. The organization currently has a mortgage on the property with Advill Capital LLC for $1.525 million, records show. The organization has not yet responded to repeated requests for comment.

photo of the top of doseph dangler mansion at 441 willoughby avenue
Neighbors have been rallying to landmark and save the mansion, which a developer plans to purchase and demolish. Susan de Vries

Local residents have been calling for the LPC to landmark and save the building since they heard late last year it might be up for sale, and they have created a petition that has gathered 1,316 signatures as of June 7. On Saturday, a group of around 30 residents gathered outside the building to discuss plans going forward.

Cynthia McPherson, who lives in a house on Willoughby Avenue that was passed down by her grandfather, said demolishing the building would harm the local community, which had long used it as a gathering space for dances, meetings and parties. She added that her late grandfather “would be down here raising hell” about its demolition.

Jean Reid, another longtime Willoughby Avenue resident, said the prospect of seeing the building leveled was very sad.

“It’s sad because the world is changing, whether we want to go along with it or not, some good some bad. I’m living through a lot, for 81 years I’ve seen a lot come and go,” she said. “It’s like old people, once you get to a certain age, they get rid of you, they don’t need you anymore, and it’s sad because it’s history.”

Reid also lamented that the city and developers were knocking down buildings, but not doing anything about rats and sanitation issues. Sanitation, air quality, public safety and traffic issues were all front and center at the rally, as were last-ditch moves that could be made to ensure the building’s survival.

Erlich has let locals onto the property twice in recent weeks to retrieve plants and any other loose relics, but said going inside is off the cards due to safety concerns.

neighbors stand outside 441 willoughby avenue construction fences
Neighbors Jean Reid and Cynthia McPherson are in favor of saving the building, and joined their community in a rally to preserve the mansion on June 4. Anna Bradley Smith

Council Member Ossé said on Tuesday he was initially wary of petitioning the LPC for the building’s landmarking as he believed the OES, an organization of longtime Black and brown Bed Stuy residents, was suffering financially and saw selling the building as the only way to relieve that burden.

“If they were to landmark this building, this building needs deep investment – structural matters and the interior – and obviously the city would want to see those repairs made, but the original owners are not in the right place financially to take care of the building,” he said, adding that he did not want to increase their financial issues.

However, he said, after extensive community engagement and attempts at working with the current owners, he feels the best thing for the community is to try and save the building. The dream for the building, he said, is for a community-focused nonprofit to take it over, restore it and turn it into a resource for the community, while relieving the OES of its debt.

Lauren Cawdrey, a neighbor who has been active in the push to landmark the house, said the community is still hopeful the building can be saved — especially now with Ossé’s support — but said time is definitely of the essence.

Cawdrey said the concern was always what would happen to the building if it was landmarked, as no one wanted to see it further neglected. But she said a more public sale could have seen different opportunities arise for its future, including adaptive reuse. She added there are a number of examples of adaptive reuse happening around the city, and that the community would be very supportive of that option.

“I understand developers need to make money, but there are better ways to that than tearing down a 122-year-old building,” Cawdrey said.

The LPC added considering the building for landmarks designation to its agenda after receiving Ossé’s letter, stopping the clock on demolition for at least 40 days.

A version of this story first appeared on Brownstoner.

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