The United Order of the Tents Might Be Spared Demolition

Since 1945, the Italianate mansion at 87 MacDonough Street has been home to a chapter of the United Order of Tents, the oldest benefit society for Black women in the United States, which was founded by former slaves. Photo: Google Maps

On Friday, the members of the Eastern District of the United Order of Tents did something they can only do when the weather is nice: Gather at their clubhouse. The grand Italianate mansion in Bed-Stuy may be imposing on the outside, but its boiler is broken, the halls are drafty, and the roof is leaky — all of which makes it hard to enjoy inside. Those problems are a step closer to getting fixed, thanks to a victory that members learned about at that rare in-person meeting: The Department of Finance is granting the club an exemption on the property taxes it has been accruing since 2017, when it applied for relief.

The group — which was founded by former slaves, can trace its roots back to the Underground Railroad, and is the country’s oldest benefit society for Black women — bought the mansion as its headquarters in 1945. It functioned as a mutual-aid society, focused on promoting sisterhood and caring for children and the elderly. But membership dwindled in the 1970s and ’80s, making it harder to keep up with payments. Meanwhile, it faced the high cost of keeping up an old building and was undercut by the work of bad contractors. “They had a number of challenges, and the building fell into a lot of disrepair,” says Jacques David, the attorney at Legal Aid who has been fighting on the group’s behalf.  Had it not been given this relief, David says, it might have lost the building entirely — the city may have been within its rights to sell it out from under them. And the tax exemption was far from a sure thing; the Department of Finance expressed hesitation about giving the group relief, as it had “not adequately proven that the property is or will be used in the foreseeable future for exempt purposes,” according to a letter it wrote the organization.

That led to a Catch-22: In order to afford to keep the building, the group needed to prove the space was being used for charitable activities, yet it couldn’t safely use the building to prove that. The department is now giving the club a “contemplated use” exemption, based less on what’s happening in the building now and more on its plans for what’s next, says David.

The exemption means the club doesn’t have a bill that keeps climbing and can focus on the problems that built up over the years. And thanks to press over its fight for the exemption last year, those problems are now getting more attention. The situation got the notice of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which last week gave the group a grant for $100,000. Architect Stephen Wilder is donating the services of his firm, Think Wilder, because he wants to focus on projects that “connect us to our past, which is slowly being pulled away from us. We’re all in.” And a structural engineer is donating services pro bono.

All that publicity also got the group $234,000 in donations on GoFundMe, which may be enough for structural improvements, says Blaire Walsh, the director of Preservation Services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy: “Every little bit really does count for this.” Walsh says inspections revealed a crack in the foundation, water damage, and some movement. “We don’t have the numbers from the conditions assessments yet,” she said. “We’ve been doing some back of the envelope budgeting.”

Another unknown is whether the club still owes property taxes that it was billed before 2017, which come to about $265,000, David says: “The sword of Damocles is still hanging over its head.” Still, David, who has worked with the organization for almost a decade, is ready to keep pushing papers. “Their ability to preserve their heritage is all contingent on their ability to preserve a building. I still have a lot of fight left in me, if we need more folks to twist and bend arms.”

The United Order of the Tents Might Be Spared Demolition