The three-story Italianate mansion at 87 MacDonough Street with a tall gingko tree in its overgrown front yard is one of Bed-Stuy’s more mysterious houses. The white sign hanging above its porch doesn’t offer much more clarity: “1888–1988 Eastern District Grand United Order of Tents of Brooklyn,” it reads in block letters. Since 1945, the house has served as the headquarters of the United Order of Tents, a national (and secretive) benevolent society run by Black women that traces its history to the Underground Railroad. In recent years, the Tents have struggled to hold onto their property. They’ve contended with few resources, the expensive maintenance that comes with a historic house, bad contractors, and unscrupulous developers. (In 2020, someone even made a fraudulent $9.5 million Zillow listing for the house.) Now, the Tents are at serious risk of permanently losing the house because of a dispute with a city agency over whether the house is vacant or not.
The United Order of Tents are located in a landmarked district, but that isn’t enough to protect them. Their long fight to keep their headquarters is another example of how challenging it is to preserve Black history sites in New York City. From the Weeksville Heritage Site’s near-bankruptcy in 2019 and the eleventh-hour landmarking of Underground Railroad stop 227 Duffield Street as it was facing demolition to the struggle to save Langston Hughes’s house in Harlem, these battles represent the persistent conflict between the immeasurable cultural value of these sites, the scarce resources — both monetary and political — available to preserve them, and the reality of a very competitive land market.
87 MacDonough has been in a state of disrepair for quite a while. But the Tents’ legal troubles began in 2011, when the organization sold the back half of its lot to cover the costs of repairing a structural wall. But the lot’s new ownership wasn’t subdivided correctly for tax purposes, and the Tents were erroneously charged with the tax bills of the new condos that went up on it. When they didn’t pay, the organization was about to lose its building to a tax lien sale in 2015. Then-Councilmember Robert Cornegy and Legal Aid attorney Jacques David were able to remove the house from the sale list just 24 hours before it was scheduled to happen.
But the list of major repairs has continued to grow: a leaky roof, water damage to ceilings and walls, and outdated electrical and heating systems, among other things. The next hurdle involved in preserving the house was figuring out a way for the Tents to generate income and not fall behind on taxes again. (The Tents currently have a $408,000 bill.) David advised the Tents to file for nonprofit status with the IRS, which would incentivize donations, open up preservation grants, and give them property tax exemption. He worked with the Tents on a revised mission statement to reflect the charitable work the Tents had been doing — like outreach and support to seniors — and what they plan to do in the future. Once the building is restored, they also want to open a museum about the group’s history, offer space for community meetings and events, and have a center for seniors and young mothers. Even further down the line, they would like to serve meals and plant a community garden. In fall of 2021, the Tents filed their application, and in February this year, it was approved. “I thought that was the last hurdle,” David says. And then it got complicated.
The Tents applied for real-estate tax exemption with New York City’s Department of Finance. This would prevent the house from receiving a lien and enable the group to spend its funds on restoring the architecture. After a small technical issue was settled, the DOF started asking more questions about the house. It wanted to see a room-by-room accounting of the functions in the headquarters, information about the Tents’ mission, and a copy of the deed. “That alarmed me,” David says. “Because I imagined that the city was essentially gathering the evidence to support an unfavorable determination.” Then, it sent a city assessor to inspect the property. This week, the Tents received a letter from the Department of Finance saying that it couldn’t grant an exemption because the building is vacant — and the Tents “have not adequately proven that the property is or will be used in the foreseeable future for exempt purposes.” (The Department of Finance did not return requests for comment.) It’s a real Catch-22: The Tents need money to repair the building so they can safely use it, but in order to get the money, they need to use the building. The Tents plan to appeal the decision. Legal Aid also noted that property law has provisions for a situation like this, when a building cannot be used but there is a good-faith plan to improve it. As it stated, “We have outlined all the reasons why the headquarters has fallen into some disrepair and the Tents’ good faith plans for renovation, yet the staff at DOF are being deliberately obtuse.”
David, who also worked on the efforts to save 227 Duffield, only believes the downtown Brooklyn house was finally landmarked after a 20-year grassroots effort because of the 2020 uprisings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Now, two years later, it’s back to business as usual. “I am getting bureaucratic indifference,” David says. Just last month, the Jacob Dangler House, a 19th-century French Gothic mansion about a mile away from 87 MacDonough, was demolished after the Landmarks Commission failed to calendar the house amid an outpouring of community pleas to save it. The Dangler House, which had fallen into disrepair, was owned until recently by the United Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization mostly composed of Black women that bought it in 1967 and used it for community events, weddings, and baby showers. The group (which opposed landmarking) sold the house to a developer after facing a $2.3 million lien that would have bankrupted the organization.
Despite this setback, the Tents are pressing onward. Their membership has grown from eight women who are mostly in their 70s and 80s to 24. The headquarters is part of a new series of audio-led walking tours of historic Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, which began last weekend, and the group hopes that the building will be landmarked in the future. “My sisters and I are not new to challenging circumstances or hardship,” Essie Gregory, president of the United Order of Tents, says. “Our organization was founded in the era of slavery and thrived during the Jim Crow era. We are working tirelessly so that our organization maintains a tent of refuge for decades to come.”