Never abandon hope: after sixteen years of hesitation, the LPC has calendared 227 Duffield Street–the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House, a small brick building in downtown Brooklyn that was home to militant abolitionists before the Civil War. There will be a designation hearing on July 14. The house still stands, now largely alone, surrounded by demolition and new development, and its continued presence is largely due to a fighting spirit who would not forget the history of her people: Joy Chatel, the former owner, “Mama Joy” of African drumming fame, who fought the Downtown Brooklyn Plan to the ground to preserve her small island of history. Not alone, of course, then Councilmembers Charles Barron, Eric Joia and Tony Avella led a series of ultimately devastating City Council hearings exposing a consultant’s biased EIS report that claimed the house lacked historic significance, and the Bloomberg administration allowed the house to stand. Since that time, the Landmarks Commission has developed designation policies that better reflect the law’s mandate to protect “improvements…having a special character or a special aesthetic or historic interest or value.”
Recognizing that historic interest has parity with aesthetic interest under existing city landmarks law was a feature of the Commission’s decision in June, 2019 to designate a group of six individual landmarks for their association with the LGBTQ civil rights struggle. Some of those designations solved administrative problems, for instance, the James Baldwin house in the Upper West Side Historic District is not classified as an architecturally “contributing” building in its district, and thus lacked adequate protection before the supplemental individual landmark designation. Based on its architecture alone, the Audre Lorde Residence probably would never have been designated, and its significance to the city could have been entirely lost. Cultural landmarks can serve as markers of the evolution of civil rights, and the Supreme Court’s decision in, for instance, United States v. Windsor deserve to be indirectly celebrated in the world of historic preservation.
Historic events may or may not take place in buildings of architectural distinction. Yet as the Municipal Art Society has been insisting since 1998, “Place Matters.” Buildings may speak memorably about origins, like the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born–but where is the monument to citizen abolitionists like the Truesdells who fought the corrupting institution of slavery in their own home town? We will keep the street name, Abolition Place for the block of Duffield Street where the Truesdell House still stands, but how will that ever be understood, if the reason for the naming no longer exists?
Below is a link to a PDF of our publication, Village Views, Vol. X, No.1 from 2006, Three Small Houses Linked to the Abolition of Slavery: Destroyed for the Downtown Brooklyn Plan?