Politicians, advocates testify for hours in favor of landmarking Downtown abolitionist house

227 Duffield
227 Duffield St. in Downtown Brooklyn.
File photo by Susan De Vries

Dozens of elected officials and advocates testified before city preservation gurus at a July 14 hearing in favor of landmarking 227 Duffield St., a Downtown Brooklyn building that housed abolitionists in the 19th century.

State Attorney General Letitia James said the Landmarks Preservation Commission should designate the row house a landmark as the country grapples with controversial monuments to the past and as many other buildings of its era have been bulldozed in favor of luxury high-rises in the neighborhood.

“As luxury developments and sky-high towers crop up all over Downtown Brooklyn, it is our responsibility as New Yorkers to make sure we do not build over this important piece of the past,” said James at the Commission’s virtual hearing Tuesday. “At a time when Americans everywhere are questioning the preservation of statues and monuments of slave traffickers and Confederate generals… 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.”

The mid-1800s building housed prominent anti-slavery activists Thomas and Harriet Lee-Truesdell, who founded several abolitionist organizations in New England and were also acquaintances of prominent abolitionist and suffragist journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, according to LPC researchers.

If commissioners vote to landmark the building, any alteration, reconstruction, demolition, or new construction affecting the structure would have to be approved by the agency first.

The city almost razed the building via eminent domain in 2007 when it was looking to make way for Willoughby Square Park as part of the major 2004 Downtown Brooklyn upzoning, but officials backed off after a lawsuit was brought by activists and one of the building’s owners, the late Joy Chatel.

The city co-named a two-block stretch of Duffield Street “Abolitionist Place” in 2007 and James — then a Councilmember for Fort Greene — fought the Michael Bloomberg administration at the time to save the building from the wrecking ball. 

The building came before the Commission that year, but the group did not support designating it or other homes on the block with abolitionist histories, many of which have since been torn down to to pave the way for new development.

One anti-gentrification activist said Tuesday that the building was a chance for the city to save what hasn’t been destroyed for the building boom.

“227 Duffield, on a political level, is a perfect example of how gentrification impacts our communities. That it’s not just about homes and small businesses, but it’s also the institutions that we love,” said Imani Henry of the affordable housing advocacy group Equality for Flatbush.

The building’s current owner, developer Samiel Hasanab, filed for demolition a year ago and plans to erect a 10-story tower with apartments along with a museum in its place that would honor African-American history, according to a spokesman.

Its fate was all but sealed until LPC decided to reconsider landmarking it on July 1, citing a push by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the ongoing nationwide protests decrying police brutality against Black people. 

The developer’s attorney, Garfield Heslop, was the sole voice testifying against landmarking the building at the hearing, claiming the three-story structure would not be financially feasible and would bankrupt the landlord, who’s already invested millions in the project.

“My clients have already invested $3 million on the building,” said Heslop. “[Landmarking] would decimate his livelihood and eviscerate the intent and purpose of the development project which was to uphold the history of the building.”

But one longtime activist said the developer’s offer was one of bad faith, saying the landlord never bothered to reach out to the local preservationists about the project.

“We have a vibrant community of people willing to save this history and they have not shown any interest in that,” said Raul Rothblatt. “As far as I can tell they’ve had contempt, I would say, of the history, if I judge their actions.”

The commission heard almost three hours of testimony and received 70 written submissions in favor and just one against, according to officials. The panel’s chairperson Sarah Carroll said they would hold a vote at a meeting in the near future after taking in all the statements and conducting some further research.