After Landmarking Effort, City Buys Brooklyn House With Ties To Underground Railroad

The city has paid $3.2 million to acquire a Brooklyn house linked to the abolitionist movement, in a fitting plot twist that caps a nearly two decade-long battle centered on the preservation of Black history in New York City.

The three-story house at 227 Duffield Street was once owned by Harriet and Thomas Truesdell, two prominent 19th century abolitionists. Over the years, experts have made the case that 227 Duffield served as a stop for the Underground Railroad.

Brooklyn Paper first reported the sale last week. During a press conference on Monday, First Lady Chirlane McCray announced the city’s purchase.

“We said it was time for all of us to learn about and understand the full history of the Underground Railroad and those who fought against the institution of slavery in New York City,” she said. “The purchase of 227 Duffield Street is a first step toward making that happen.”

The city’s Landmark Commission awarded 227 Duffield landmark status in February, following an intense campaign by preservationists.

New York City has landmarked 17 sites related to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad out of a total of more than 37,000 city properties that have been given landmark protection.

READ MORE: Lawmakers Push For Landmarking Possible Underground Railroad Site On Riverside Drive

As Downtown Brooklyn underwent a transformation spurred by rezoning, the building faced multiple redevelopment pressures. The first threat came from the city itself. Around 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration sought to seize the property through eminent domain to make way for a new park. After a years-long fight with activists and the then-owner, Joy Chatel, city officials finally backed off in 2007.

Chatel eventually died, resulting in the sale of the house. In the summer of 2019, Samiel Hanasab, a developer applied for a demolition permit. He submitted plans to build a 13-story mixed-use building with 21 residential units, but told Gothamist that he would open an African American museum in the basement.

Hasanab had opposed the landmarking of the building, which would have many any demolition or renovation subject to the approval of the city’s Landmarks Commission.

READ MORE: A Historic Brooklyn House With Ties To Underground Railroad Faces Demolition

Garfield Heslop, an attorney for Hasanab, told Brooklyn Paper, “After much wrangling and consideration and considering that the value of the property automatically plummeted after landmarking, we had no choice but to sell the property.”

Raul Rothblatt, an activist and member of Save 227 Duffield, had initially lobbied the Landmarks Commission to protect the house as far back as 2007.

He called the city’s purchase and preservation of the home “an incredible relief.” Going forward, he said his group was now planning to work with the city on plans to turn 227 Duffield into a cultural institution.

“I’m not done,” Rothblatt said, adding that the Truesdell house was in fact part of a larger network of properties owned by abolitionists. “This is an important part of American history.”

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