Demolition threatened Father Divine’s Bklyn house

Clinton Hill villa-style mansion designated. With a demolition permit application pending, Landmarks designated the Italianate-style home at 70 Lefferts Place in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, one of the last free-standing individual homes remaining from the area’s past as a suburban enclave. Built in 1854 for the merchant James W. Elwell, the International Peace Mission Movement and its leader Father Divine, who claimed to be God incarnate, purchased the home in 1931 and lived communally in it for several years where they offered free meals to the public.

At the public hearing on designation, Angel Lee, who lived in the house with Father Divine’s group, reminisced about the 1940s when lines for banquets snaked around the block, and “even if they had no money, no one went hungry.” Andrew Dolkart, Columbia University architectural historian, called the Elwell House “an important part of Brooklyn’s history,” and Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council referred to the vote by Landmarks as a “life or death decision for this building.” A representative of Council Member Letitia James chastised Landmarks, saying it “seems to only put out fires, not prevent them.”

The owner’s attorney, Robert Viviano, claimed that his client already received the needed demolition permit from the Department of Buildings, which Landmarks’ General Counsel Mark Silberman refuted. Viviano then responded that designation would end all improvement plans, leaving the house to deteriorate to neighborhood blight.

Following the bulk of the public’s testimony, owner Frank Morris spoke, saying that he never heard of Father Divine and failed to see the house’s history as remarkable. However, Morris commented that community concerns made him willing to protect the home’s frame as part of his planned condo development.

Despite Landmarks praise for Morris’s agreement to protect some aspect of the house, Chair Robert Tierney recommended an immediate vote due to the ambiguity over the demolition permit’s status. When Landmarks voted unanimously to designate, the remaining spectators responded with cheers.

LPC: James W. and Lucy S. Elwell House, 70 Lefferts Place, Brooklyn (LP- 2215) (Dec. 12, 2006).

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