By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Among the many distinguishing features of New York City real estate, one is prominent: change. Hospitals evolve into luxury apartments, landmarks are reduced to rubble, and buildings flip with the alacrity of circus acrobats. In a city where even phone jacks can be sublet, permanence is as rare as a decent closet.
That's why the Hendrick I. Lott House in Brooklyn's Marine Park is remarkableit has both permanence and fabulous closets. Built in 1720 and expanded in 1800, the 18-room Dutch farmhouse has been owned by the same family for 278 yearsa lineage that is singular in New York City. Sitting midblock on three-quarters of an acre amid a sea of two-family semidetached townhomes, the Lott House is an architectural chronicle of Brooklyn life from farm days to slavery to modern times.
But the Lott House is also clad in that most common New York City real estate veneer, controversy. Since its inception in 1965, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has tried to designate the house a landmark. And from the start, Lott descendant and house owner Ella Suydam battled it.
"Who the hell are you to tell me what I can do with my house?" Suydam asked a city agency in 1980. To Suydam, landmarking amounted to harassment and an invitation to gawkers to come prowling about her yard. But in July 1989, Suydam died in her house at the age of 92, leaving the vacant house to two out-of-town nieces. Two months later, the Lott House was named a landmark.
Now the property is swarming with activity. In June, archaeologists from Brooklyn College began excavating the yard, unearthing what they believe is a stone kitchen that likely doubled as slave quarters. The Hendrick I. Lott House Preservation Association is working with the city Parks Department's Historic House Trust to restore the building. And while all that could make Ella Suydam spin in her Greenwood grave, she might find comfort in knowing that the house is still owned by Lott descendants.
That's because Suydam's estate sued LPC in 1990, claiming that landmarking made the property worthless because the house could not be demolished. In court papers, the heirs argued that developers had offered more than $1 million for the land if they could raze the house and put up more two-family homes.
"The way to deal with that house economically would be to destroy it, but landmarking prevented that," says Gary Divis, a New York City attorney who is married to Suydam's cousin, Catherine Lott. "So they were caught in a bind." Divis and his wife support the landmarking effort.
For eight years, while the estate and city wrangled over the house's fate, the structure degenerated. The longer it sat idle, the more expensive the prospect of renovating it became. "In this case," says Scott Heyl, executive director of the Historic House program, "landmarking actually accelerated the endangerment."
Designating a building a landmark might seem an honor, but many owners resent it because it limits what they can do with their property. For example, Broadway theater owners sued the LPC because landmark status meant they could not demolish or alter their buildings. The City Council is about to vote on a bill to allow theater owners to sell their air rights in part to compensate for the limits set on their properties by the LPC.
The arguments for landmarking, however, can be compelling. "Houses like the Lott farm are the living embodiment of the heritage of the city," says Heyl. "In a city that's always had a tear-it-down-and-build-it-over-again mentality, its survival is remarkable."
Heyl and others are negotiating with the Lott estate and last fall won site control. Heyl says he hopes the purchase will go through within two years, and while he wouldn't discuss price, sources expect it to be about $1.5 million. Heyl also hopes to acquire many of the house's original furnishings, which Suydam's nieces took. If negotiations work, the Lott House will be a city park.
Indeed, with its large, lush yard, the Lott House is already parklike. But the land surrounding it is a mere slice of the Lott family's former holdings, which encompassed the better part of South Brooklyn between what is now Bedford and Flatbush avenues from Quentin Road to Jamaica Bay.
The Lotts were farmers, raising potatoes and corn, but their real wealth was in the land, which was often parceled out as marriage presents. The family roster reads like a Hagstrom's map of Brooklyn, with names like Remsen, Boerum, Bergen, Van Brunt, Snedeker, and Suydam.
While the Lotts were huge landowners and fairly large slaveholderscensus records show they owned about 35 slaves in the early 1800sthey were not elite. "These are not Southern plantation owners sitting on the porch watching the slaves work," says archaeologist Chris Ricciardi. "They also worked the farm themselves, and made their living with their hands. In New York at that time, that meant you were not in the wealthy class."
The Lotts' property remained a working farm until the 1920s, though by then it had shrunk to a five-block radius from the house. In 1926, owner Andrew Suydam and his wife Jennie Lott Suydam (Ella's parents) sold everything but the house and its current yard.
In 1952, Ella Suydam inherited the house from her mother, and lived there another 37 years with her sister Anna, who died in 1987. Both women were librarians; Ella ran the library at Erasmus Hall High School.
The Lott House is largely true to its original design and, unlike many of the 14 surviving Dutch farmhouses in Brooklyn, remains on its original land. The 1720 portion of the wooden house has ceilings only six feet high and features a single tiny bedroom. But the rest of the building is adorned with arched dormer windows, a grand foyer, and enough closets, pantries, and built-in storage spaces to make any city dweller dream.
The house also bears the marks of Ella and Anna's more recent tenure. Original Federal fireplace mantels remain, but faux brick hearth linings with marble laminate backings abound. Floral-patterned wall-to-wall carpeting covers wide-plank wood floors. Layers of extinct newspapersThe Brooklyn Eagle, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Sunserve as a liner between wooden floors and once new linoleum.
While the house is virtually empty, stray objects remain: 29 pairs of women's shoes fill one upper bedroom; a dozen Saks Fifth Avenue hatboxes are scattered in another. Squatters and local kids who vandalized the house after Ella died have left scars: small fires burned into floors, names were carved into walls or dripped on a radiator cover in candle wax. Remarkably, the damage is minimal.
There is one other vestige of Ella's ownership: the NO TRESPASSING sign she posted near the front gate. In late July, when archaeologists were excavating, the sign sat lopsided atop a pile of trowels and shovels used to dig up Ella Suydam's old yard. Ricciardi jokes that her ghost still haunts the place: new lightbulbs burn out regularly, and once, interior doors slammed shut even though the house's windows are boarded. "We ring the bell now when we come in the house," says archaeologist Alyssa Loorya. "We say hello to Ella."
Ricciardi says archaeologists, historians, and architects will be actively studying the Lott House for the next four or five years. Conservationists will restore it, taking up 1940s carpeting and Depression-era wallpaper. As New York City celebrates its centennial, the Hendrick I. Lott House will be brought, kicking and screaming, back to the 17th century.
Research: Michael Kolber