The gorgeous 1863 mansion at 87 MacDonough Street, near the corner of Tompkins Avenue has been home to interesting people throughout its long history. It was built for William A. Parker, who made his fortune selling hops and malt to brewers, at a time when Brooklyn was becoming a major manufacturer of beer. The second owner of the house was James McMahon, the son of Irish immigrants who made his fortune on the railroad lines between Boston and Baltimore. He later became president of Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank, the New York bank begun by Irish immigrants which grew to become the largest and richest savings bank in the city. McMahon was joined in the house by his wife and seven children. By the end of his life, in 1913, he had been married three time, buried several of his children, disinherited one, and was more than likely estranged from at least one other. At his death, the house was still home to one of his daughters.
In 1913, the year James McMahon died, Stuyvesant Heights was a solidly middle, to upper middle class neighborhood. The block upon which 87 MacDonough Street sits was filled with single family home owners, mostly of Irish descent, along with some Germans, and the neighbors were engaged in the law, banking, insurance, and medicine. The neighborhood was home to merchants, store owners and teachers. Then an interesting thing happened: uncontrolled real estate speculation.
During the late teens and early 1920’s, real estate in Bedford Stuyvesant began to skyrocket in price, as speculators began buying up inventory, especially multi-unit apartment buildings, but also single and two family homes. The development of subway and elevated lines to the neighborhood, along with improved trolley service spurred demand for homes, as first and second generation immigrant families, as well as African-Americans, began to move to Brooklyn from Manhattan. Here they found larger buildings, less density and more space. Real estate prices soared as speculators flipped buildings from owner to owner, reaping great rewards. Sounds familiar.
The Great Depression caused the real estate speculation to stop, but it also left many buildings with absentee owners and deteriorating conditions, especially in larger apartment buildings. Landlords began saving those inferior apartments for black tenants, charging them more for deteriorating building stock. Essential services like sanitation and policing was cut. By 1930, 11% of Bedford Stuyvesant’s population was black, and the numbers were growing. White owners petitioned the city to do something about the over-inflated mortgages and home prices, citing foreclosures, homes being chopped up into rooming houses, and run down tenements, but the city did nothing to change the situation. It had other problems.
Not all black people were poor, however. Well-off African-Americans, disillusioned by the decline in Harlem’s building stock, and coming from other parts of the city, were settling in all parts of Bedford Stuyvesant, including in Stuyvesant Heights, throughout the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. They bought homes on MacDonough Street, Decatur, Stuyvesant; all over the neighborhood. These were hard working, frugal, God-fearing folk who took great pride in their hard won homes. Some endured the scorn of their neighbors; others saw their neighbors take flight. As the neighborhood changed, so did the churches. Most of the grand churches of Stuyvesant Heights either changed denomination, or saw their congregations change in complexion by the 1940’s. Change also happened in the grand houses of the neighborhood. Large, free standing mansions have always been white elephants as communities change. This is true everywhere. Brooklyn was no different. Large homes are expensive to maintain, and often are not conducive to becoming apartment buildings or rooming houses. If they don’t become schools, they often end up as churches, or meeting halls and clubs. It was time for 87 MacDonough Street to belong to the Tent Ladies.
The United Order of Tents is a woman’s fraternal lodge dating back to 1848, with a long, proud history in the African-American community. It was founded in Norfolk, Virginia by two former slaves; Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor, with the support of two abolitionists; Joliffe Union and Joshua R. Giddings. They began the lodge as a station on the Underground Railroad, shepherding escaping slaves to the North and to freedom in Canada. Often the escapees would huddle in tents, hiding in woods and remote places, giving birth to the organization’s name. They became formally organized after the Civil War, with a headquarters in Norfolk. The UOT is the oldest Christian organization in the US entirely organized and solely populated by women. Their mission to be a tent of salvation for the African-American population inspired the organization’s goal to feed, clean, and provide nursing care wherever necessary. Most of their membership were registered and trained practical nurses. They supplied needed medical care in the black community, and offered burial insurance, guaranteeing that a decent burial would be provided after death. They raised money for orphanages, hospitals and homes for the elderly. During the 1920’s through the 1940’s, the United Order of Tents had their greatest growth and strength of membership, and it was during this period, in 1945, that they purchased the big mansion at 87 MacDonough Street.
Not much is known about the branch of the United Order of Tents, here in Brooklyn. The organization has always been very secretive, and unfortunately, they are now a small, aging group without a lot of resources. A story about a branch of the Tent Ladies in South Carolina probably tells the story of the Brooklyn Ladies. “We’re not very good about communicating with the public about our work. We mostly do it among ourselves,” said Ann Blandin of Charleston, a retired social worker who joined the Tents in 1977. “There is a lot we can’t tell as well because it is a secret organization. There are no men allowed in our organization, and we don’t have parties and drinks. Sometimes that doesn’t attract the young people. They want to have fun. But we are trying to lead Christian lives. That is what we are about.” (Charleston Post and Courier, 11/16/2008)
The Tent Ladies have owned 87 MacDonough now for over 65 years. At some point the carriage house was torn down, and the expansive grounds have gone to seed. The house is in need of work. The United Order of Tents is holding on, and still has meetings at the house, and their business is still their own, shrouded in secrecy. One can only hope that they are able to reach out to someone in the community and ask for help in preserving one of Stuyvesant Heights’ most important buildings. Their ownership of the house is a vital part of its survival; it may never have made it otherwise, as most houses on large, developable plots of land are gone. For this storied mansion, the Tent Ladies were indeed a tent of salvation.
(Photo: United Order of Tents National HQ, Norfolk, VA. Credit: npl.lib.va.us)
(Photo: a commemorative medal of the UOT. Credit: Ebay)