A year and a day after being reduced to rubble, a beloved Brooklyn mansion will make a ghostly return — its image projected onto a neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone at the annual Willoughby Avenue block party this Saturday.
For residents of the stretch between Nostrand and Marcy Avenues, memories and an overgrown lot are all that remains of 441 Willoughby Avenue after developer Tomer Erlich last July took down the Chateauesque-style home built in the late 1800s, with plans to eventually build condominiums on the site.
Erlich secured a demolition permit just prior to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) scheduled vote, shocking activists who had hoped to preserve a home built in 1897-8 for Jacob Dangler, a prominent Brooklyn meatpacker and provisions merchant.
Michael Williams, 65, told THE CITY he was near tears as the mansion where he and his brother built go-karts and kites as Cub Scouts was demolished. For several decades, the building was rented out for baby showers, community meetings, weddings and repasts. Kids in the neighborhood would call it “the castle,” Williams recalled.
The mansion had served in recent years as a clubhouse for a masonic organization, The United Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, with a membership composed mainly of Black women.
Neighbors said the building — with its copper roofing, gargoyles, limestone and slate shingles — had been the crown jewel on the corner of a block of magnificent brownstones.
“For me, it meant so much,” said Williams, a lifelong resident known to neighbors as the mayor of the block.
While the mansion has already been destroyed, the sale to Erlich has not been completed according to property records. Developer Tomer Erlich declined comment.
Residents said the mansion’s demolition offered cruel lessons on the city’s complicated land use and landmarking rules, while also spurring them to save other Bed-Stuy brownstones.
“We’re just gonna keep pushing, writing, calling, coming together, until we are seen and heard,” Charyl Pitts-Howard, 47, told THE CITY outside of her home one block south on Hart Street.
“These blocks are beautiful — it’d be horrible to erase them.”
‘Fights Feel Very Personal’
A Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson pinned the destruction of the Dangler mansion on a rare Buildings Department “processing error” that meant the commission was unaware of the timeline on Erlich’s application for demolition.
A Buildings Department spokesperson said the agency has developed DOB NOW, an online system designed to more closely track projects and applications.
“Along with our partners at LPC, we are committed to taking appropriate coordinated action in order to protect our city’s rich history whenever it is put at risk by neglect and bad actors,” spokesperson Ryan Degan said in a statement.
But the damage here has already been done, and “the fights feel very personal,” said Paula Lee Poy, who has lived on Willoughby Avenue for 21 years.
After the building’s demolition, Lee Poy was among the neighbors, many of whom had been fighting to keep the building in place as members of the Willoughby Nostrand Marcy Block, who formed Justice for 441 Willoughby to press the city for information about what happened and recompense.
The group is also trying to have other Bed-Stuy brownstones designated as landmarks.
“None of this work happens in a vacuum,” said group member Molly Salas. “One thing we’d like to do as a group moving forward is take these learnings and make a toolkit for other neighborhoods.”
Block by Block
In January, the organization applied for landmark designation for Willoughby Avenue and Hart Street between Nostrand and Marcy Avenues. The LPC replied in February that those two blocks “may merit consideration.”
The Willoughby Nostrand Marcy Block Association’s online
petition supporting landmarking has almost 800 signatures. But advocates acknowledge the process is a lengthy one.
“A lot of our allies in preservation who have more experience doing this have given us timelines of five, seven years or even longer,” Salas said.
After the block party, The Illuminator, an artist-activist initiative that stages projection-interventions across the city, will cast an image of the mansion onto the house next door to where it stood.
“The landmarks people owe us something,” said Williams, who supports the nearby streets gaining landmark status. “They can’t just hand out a slap on the wrist. Give us something on Willoughby Avenue.”
Lee Poy says she feels “more tuned in” to neighborhood happenings since the demolition, comparing the energy and voice she brought to the mansion advocacy to another local fight she partook in to remove asbestos at her children’s school.
“That fight ended well, the asbestos was removed [but] the population looked different and we were in Carroll Gardens,” said Lee Poy, noting the class and racial differences between the neighborhoods.