Is someone trying to pocket a deposit or steal from the oldest Black women’s fraternal organization in the country? Someone claiming to be the owner of the Brooklyn headquarters of the United Order of Tents has posted a listing on Zillow, saying the landmarked 1863 mansion at 87 MacDonough Street in Bed Stuy is for sale — and asking $9.75 million for it.
The listing gives no names, just says the property is “for sale by owner.” The listing owner’s thumbnail photo of a young Black woman can be traced to a hairstyles website via Pinterest. A call to the number on the listing produced a recording in a male voice saying “This voicemail box is full.”
The listing calls the crumbling yet impressive and large property “a gem in need of some TLC.” It promises callers a “virtual tour and a description of the great art” inside.
The listing copy focuses on the house’s furnishings and, strangely, describes “conflict” between a television and a lamp: “Walking through this door, you enter a living room with pink, striped walls, but the blue glow of the TV directly to the right of the door sometimes makes them look almost purple. The light from the TV is in conflict with the lamp on the wall to your left, and the daylight coming through the windows all the way across the room,” it says.
Calls to local and national leaders of the Order of Tents Monday afternoon have not yet been returned.
The freestanding brick villa, which is located within the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, was constructed for William A. Parker, a dealer of hops and malt, in 1863. Brownstoner’s Suzanne Spellen described it as one of Bed Stuy’s jewels in a full history of the Second Empire and Italianate-style manse.
The former single-family home was purchased by the United Order of the Tents in 1945. The organization has its roots with Underground Railroad activities before the Civil War but was formally organized after the war. It was founded in Virginia by two formerly enslaved women, Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor as a Christian benevolent association, supplying medical care and housing and raising funds for hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly.
The somewhat secretive order was particularly active in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s with notices popping up in newspapers for their own activities as well as for other organizations that were allowed to host meetings, church services and other events at the MacDonough Street headquarters.
A portion of the property, which once held a carriage house facing Macon Street, was sold to developer H Holding Group for $720,00 in 2012 and turned into The Brownstone Apartments, but on MacDonough Street the manse still stands. While looking a bit forlorn and neglected, the important architectural features are still extant on the exterior. The city’s circa 1940 tax photo shows the property as it looked a few years before the Tents acquired it.
Most of the period detail on the interior was removed to make meeting spaces and the building may have structural issues, according to a Brownstoner reader who has been inside. An old certificate of occupancy reveals the house was a hospital in the early 20th century. In 2014, the women’s organization repaired a bulging side wall, Department of Building records show.
The group and its Brooklyn property inspired a 2019 conference at Brooklyn College. The organization’s structure and history were documented in a 2019 article by Tents member Essie Gregory and Brooklyn College Assistant Professor of Urban Archaeology Kelly Britt. The building has also been an Historic Districts Council’s Six to Celebrate pick.
Real estate fraud is a widespread problem in Brooklyn, including in Bed Stuy, where prices of townhouses have tripled since 2012. Free legal help is available to low-income owners through Legal Aid, and community groups and elected officials sometimes organize educational sessions and town halls about the problem.
So far, Bed Stuy’s highest priced sale to date was a 40-foot-wide mansion on a quadruple lot, the John C. Kelley house at 247 Hancock Street, which went for $6.275 million in 2018.
Update: The listing is fake, but not a scam. It’s part of an online scavenger hunt created by Great Gotham Challenge. The unusual listing copy — including the mention of the lamp and TV — gives clues for solving the puzzle, according to a Brownstoner reader who participated in the challenge earlier this month.
— Additional research by Susan De Vries.
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