New York’s Hidden History
If you’ve ever taken a stroll through Washington Heights or Uptown Manhattan, you may not have realized you passed a historical kaleidoscope into America’s past.
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is responsible for determining which properties should be subject to landmark status (based on historical and aesthetic qualities), is currently deciding whether to extend such protected status to 227 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn, as well as 857 Riverside Drive in West Harlem – both of which are claimed to have ties to the Underground Railroad and abolitionist efforts in the 1800s.
About 16 years ago, the Greek Revival rowhouse at 227 Duffield St. was in the sights of the city’s eminent domain efforts. However, support to preserve this piece of history once owned by Harriet and Thomas Truesdell -- abolitionists instrumental in the fight against slavery -- was too overwhelming for even the city government to combat. Since then, a grass roots campaign to grant the property landmark status has included elected officials and politicians, including Mayor DeBlasio and first lady, Chirlane McCray, whom have both urged the city to thoroughly review the property’s historical background. While a decision has yet to be made by the Commission, the 131 people testifying at the July 2020 hearing, with accounts that the property was a marked Underground Railroad stop, have likely made a strong case in preservation’s favor.
The push for 857 Riverside Drive is not faring as well. The small two-story home sits between two large residential apartment buildings, and the current owners plan to demolish the building and replace it with a 13-story structure. The prior owner, (now a holdover occupant), opposes the demolition and is asking that the property transfer be invalidated, claiming he was “swindled” and did not realize what he was signing.
A group has submitted historical data in the hopes of getting landmark status for 857. The petition claims that the property was owned by notable abolitionist minister Dennis Harris, whose other properties throughout the city were known as safe-havens for slaves making their way North in the pre-Civil War era. Harris owned a TriBeCa sugar refinery, which was characterized as “Grand Central Station” for slaves escaping to Canada. When the refinery was destroyed by a fire in 1848, Harris purchased the property on Riverside Drive.
While holding some historical significance, it wasn’t enough for the Commission, which rejected the petition in November 2020. Should the prior owner be granted some reprieve, he plans to return the property to its former 1851 glory, and equip it with a cupola, clapboard siding, and full wrap-around porch.
There are over 37,000 sites throughout New York City with landmark protection, however only 17 are related to abolitionism or the fight against slavery. Allowing these properties be able to remain intact would surely be a win for preservationists ... and for us all.