Category Archives: families

Save Lady Moody’s House!

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (

On October 8, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will hold a public hearing to determine if the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — known as Lady Moody’s House — meets the criteria for landmark status. Despite what many locals believe, the house is not an official landmark. That means it is not protected by law, and could, conceivably, be torn down by some uncaring developer. (If you’d like to be its guardian, the house is currently for sale!) However, the house has been on the LPC’s radar since 1966, when it was “calendared.” That provides a modicum of protection in that any application for demolition should send up a red flag, spurring the LPC to action. But they’ve had half a century to decide. After the October hearing, a public meeting in early 2016 will determine the next step, which — fingers crossed — will hopefully lead to designation of this most iconic of Gravesend houses.

What follows is my open letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, urging her to act now. I beg you all to drop a line, however brief, to the LPC, by the October 1st deadline (whether or not you plan to attend the hearing), stating your support for the house. The more of us they hear from, the better. Take a look at the LPC’s informative fact sheet about the house (even I learned some things!), then write to I’d love to read your thoughts if you’d care to copy me (

Oh, and don’t miss the gallery of wonderful images at the bottom of this post!

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured the Lady Moody House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

The Brooklyn Eagle featured the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

August 29, 2015

Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North

New York, NY 10007

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan:

Ask anyone in Gravesend, Brooklyn where Lady Moody lived. Invariably they’ll point to the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, just next to Public School 95. How do they know she lived there? A teacher told them. Or their grandmother. And who was Lady Moody anyway? Oh, she helped George Washington escape the Redcoats through a tunnel running from her basement to the cemetery across the street. And during the Civil War she hid slaves in that tunnel on their way north to freedom.

None of this happened, of course: Deborah Moody died late in 1658, nearly seventy-five years before the birth of Washington, and over two centuries before the Civil War. The general public, knowing instinctively that Lady Moody bore some significance, but lacking specifics, attaches her — and the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — to the seminal events of American history.

The facts are these: Deborah Moody (ca. 1586-1658) was the wealthy, freethinking widow of a baronet. By 1639 she was in Puritan Massachusetts, where her Anabaptist leanings branded her “a dangerous woman.” To avoid censure she moved in 1643 to New Netherland, where she petitioned the tolerant Dutch to grant her and some followers a spot on western Long Island where they could worship as they pleased. They called their settlement Gravesend, the patent to which ensured they could enjoy “liberty of Conscience . . . without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or . . . ecclesiastical minister that may pretend jurisdiction over them.”

Moody’s fellow patentee, the surveyor James Hubbard, designed the town’s central plan: a sixteen-acre square bounded by present-day Village Road North, Village Road East, Village Road South, and Van Sicklen Street, and cut into quadrants by the intersection of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road. In each quadrant ten house lots bordered a common yard for holding livestock. Records show that in 1646 Lady Moody was assigned a double lot in the northwest quadrant, corresponding (in part) to the modern street address of 27 Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn (block 7123, lot 64).

Lady Moody must have built a house on her property between 1646 and 1658. Is the house standing there today the one she occupied? A structural evaluation conducted in 2005 by Robert Silman Associates, Consulting Engineers, suggests the present building incorporates three phases of construction: The part most visible — Phase 2 — is an eighteenth-century “random rubble [stone] building supporting hand-hewn wood floor beams and simple log beam roof trusses.” Phase 3 reflects the early twentieth-century changes made by then-owners William and Isabelle Platt, who excavated a full basement under the ground floor, added dormers to the roof, and stuccoed the exterior to conform with the prevailing Arts and Crafts aesthetic. But evidence of an earlier structure, one possibly dating from the seventeenth century, is visible in the basement, where there are four stone bearing walls, three of which support the current above-ground walls. The fourth lies buried beneath the main house and its rear extension. This “out-of-place” wall led Silman Associates to hypothesize that the Phase 2 house is a reconfiguration of an older building, a Phase 1 house that was enlarged in the 1700s.

This 1893 watercolor of an African-American laundress by Charles W. Bauhan --

This watercolor by Charles W. Bauhan  — “Wash-day. Gravesend L. I. Sep. 4 / [18]93.” — was painted looking east from a spot now in the schoolyard of P.S. 95. It captures the west gable end of the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House rising above the fence. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Was this Phase 1 house Lady Moody’s? Or was it built by one of the later seventeenth-century owners of her land? We may never know. But its expanded  form — the rubble-stone Phase 2 house — is probably the work of the Van Sicklen family, who came into possession of the property in 1702. Most eighteenth-century houses in sandy, coastal Gravesend were of wood-frame construction. Stone houses tended to be built near ridges, where appropriate-sized boulders were plentiful. To build a stone house at a location where rubble was scarce required significant manual labor, and the Van Sicklens, who, like most Dutch farmers of the period owned slaves, likely employed those slaves to transport rock to the site.

The Van Sicklen family occupied the house for the rest of the eighteenth century and through most of the nineteenth. Eventually it descended to Cornelia Van Sicklen, whose husband, Thomas Hicks, acquired it in 1842. (His carved initials survive on a ceiling beam near the eastern ground-floor fireplace of the house.) Hicks died in 1884, and his wife followed in 1893. The house sat vacant for a time, and then served briefly as meeting place for the fledgling Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church in 1899. In 1904 the Hicks estate sold the house to William and Isabelle Platt, whose renovations resulted in a romanticized Dutch farmhouse set in a lush garden, which Mrs. Platt profiled in the June 1909 issue of Country Life in America. The Platts were the first to call this the “Lady Moody Homestead,” a name it has kept for more than a century.

By 1910 the Platts put the house up for sale (William Platt was a real estate speculator who was then involved in developments on Staten Island), and so began the perennial cries from preservationists and press that the Lady Moody House be rescued by the City or a civic group, or moved to Prospect Park or even to the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair. Its fate seemed secure after it became a V.F.W. post in 1945, but that was a short-lived incarnation. The house reverted to private status, and was bought in 1955 by Nunzio Maisano, who covered the front in imitation stone veneer. Ironically, this facing hides the real thing. (It wouldn’t be too difficult to restore the house to the attractive state in which the Platts left it; the original door, removed by Maisano, survives in care of Eric J. Ierardi, president of the Gravesend Historical Society.)

Nunzio Maisano’s descendants held the house for nearly fifty years before selling it. Now it is on the market again, and time is running out. (Couldn’t the City acquire the house as a gift to the neighboring school for use as a meeting place or exhibition space? Both the Historic Districts Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy have expressed interest in the house. Why not tap them for assistance and grants?)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission calendared the property in 1966, but a hearing that year did not result in designation. Nor did subsequent hearings in 1970 or 2004, due to owner opposition. But the Commission has designated other sites when faced with similar resistance (e.g., the Hendrick I. Lott House at 1940 East 36th Street in Brooklyn), and in cases where the fabric of a structure has been significantly altered (e.g., the asphalt-shingled Sandy Ground cottages at 565 and 569 Bloomingdale Road on Staten Island). And the recent designation of the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the modern LGBT movement at 51-53 Christopher Street in Manhattan, illustrates that the Commission is cognizant of the historical associations of a building, even when its architectural integrity has been compromised.

Despite the changes it has weathered, the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House remains the sole surviving eighteenth-century stone farmhouse in Brooklyn. It is one of two extant Dutch-American houses within the boundaries of the original Gravesend town square, where as late as the 1920s there were seven. It sits directly opposite the landmarked Van Sicklen Family Cemetery, which holds the remains of many generations who occupied the house. At the very least, it stands on the property of the remarkable Lady Deborah Moody, the first European woman to found a community in North America, a settlement chartered on the principle of religious freedom some hundred and thirty years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I trust you will seize this opportunity to recognize publicly, formally, and legally, the significance of this site tied inextricably to the themes of Brooklyn history, Women’s history, American slavery, and religious freedom. Without landmark protection the house is doomed.

Thank you for your valuable time.


Joseph Ditta

Author, Then & Now: Gravesend, Brooklyn (Arcadia Publishing, 2009)

 Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under buildings, Charles William Bauhan, churches, Gilbert Hicks, Gravesend artists, Gravesend Cemetery, Gravesend Neck Road, Hicks family, Lady Moody House, Maud Esther Dilliard, Slavery, streets, Van Sicklen family

Gravesend Characters Past: “Governor of Coney Island”

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to the curious stereoscopic view below. It surfaced recently, as so many fascinating treasures do, on eBay.


E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, recto, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The image side shows a seated, portly gentleman, hands clasped across his rumpled, outdated frock coat. He wears equally unfashionable ruffles at his neck, and squints at the camera with a bemused half-smile, looking for all the world like William Claude Dukenfield, despite his flowing hair.

The reverse side of this stereoview — one in the series “A Trip to Coney Island” published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co. circa 1864-1869 — bears the cryptic caption “Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island.”

Most internet searches on the phrase “Governor of Coney Island” return hits for Gilbert Davis, an early owner of the Pavilion, a dancing and entertainment venue at Norton’s Point (present-day Sea Gate). Davis, who died about 1870, was a wine merchant who so relished his unofficial honorific that he marked his casks “CGI” for “Governor of Coney Island.” But Davis was an upstart newcomer to Coney Island, at least in the eyes of the Wyckoff family.


E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, verso, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The Wyckoffs were among the first permanent European settlers of Coney Island. John Wyckoff (1787-1871), a great-great-great-grandson of Wyckoff family progenitor Pieter Claesen (died 1694), opened a seaside hotel, the eponymous Wyckoff House, in the 1840s. By the time the Anthonys issued their stereoview, Wyckoff’s son, John Jr. (1809-1873), had become proprietor.

Although the Wyckoffs are one of the best-documented families in the world, the Coney Island branch seems to have fallen through the cracks. Published information is sketchy or outright wrong. The standard genealogy of the Wyckoff family states that John Jr. died in 1868. He did not. He passed away December 8, 1873. His funeral took place three days later at the Wyckoff House, and he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. A subsequent notice in the Sag Harbor Corrector positively identifies him as the man in the stereoview:

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (

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Gravesend Characters Past: “Betsey” (c. 1726-1843)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to a Gravesend woman for whom the barest traces survive. Scraps, really; but taken together, they provide a glimpse into her long life of servitude.

She first appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, of all places. The National Gazette of Tuesday 8 March 1831 (p. 3) did not name her, but focused on the fact which made her a curiosity: her great age.

Longevity.–There is now in the family of Mrs. Stillwell, in Gravesend, a colored woman, who has attained the age of 103 years. She came into the family when she was 28 years of age, and has remained in the same house since that time. She is industrious, milks the cows, and does the washing for a family of ten persons, and will not suffer others to assist her. Her faculties are all good, and particularly her eyesight. [1831 – 103 = a birth year of c. 1828]

Similar accounts ran in New England papers in the following weeks. She remained nameless, and her age varied slightly–102 instead of 103 (which calculates to a birth year of c. 1729)–but the recitation was verbatim.

1840.census.Stillwell.Maria - Copy

Detail of page for 1840 U.S. census, Gravesend, Kings County, N.Y., showing household of Maria Stillwell and the tick mark for her servant who was upwards of 100-years-old.

She was still alive nine years later, on 1 June 1840, when the federal census enumerator stopped into the residence of Maria Stillwell to count her household. Again, the National Gazette and Literary Register of Philadelphia tells the story (Tuesday 1 September 1840, p. 2):

The officer, employed to take the census of King’s [sic] county, N.Y., met at the residence of Maria Stillwell, at Gravesend, a colored woman at the advanced age of 113 years. She appears to be in perfect health, eats, drinks, and sleeps well, and performs her duty as a domestic with astonishing energy and activity. She says she can milk the cows as readily as she could a hundred years ago. [1840 – 113 = a birth year of c. 1727]

Before 1850, the decennial United States federal census did not record the names of every member of every household. Only the head of the family was listed; everyone else was entered by tick marks or numbers in columns describing their status, sex, and age. In Maria Stillwell’s household, under the column headed “Free Colored Persons / Females / 100 and upwards” is a lone scratch of the pen, nearly off the page, for her 113-year-old servant.

Remarkably, she lived nearly another three years, until March 1843. In death, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2) finally gives her name:


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Wednesday 8 March 1843, p. 2. [Note: 1843 – 117 = a birth year of c. 1726. “Saturday last” = 4 March 1843.]

A briefer notice, in the Christian Intelligencer of the Reformed Dutch Church for Saturday 11 March 1843 spells her name “Betsey” and pushes her death back to Friday the 3rd.

And what have we learned from these bits and pieces? That an African-American woman named “Betty” or “Betsey,” born between 1726 and 1729, entered the service of the Stillwell family at age 28, sometime between the years 1754 and 1757 — when she would certainly have been enslaved — and continued to do their laundry and milking for the better part of a century, until her death at the supposed great age of 117.

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (

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Gravesend Characters Past: Charles R. Stillwell (1854-1920)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, here is a profile of Charles Rushmore Stillwell, transcribed from Peter Ross, LL. D., A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1902), 111:


Charles R. Stillwell (1854-1920)

Charles R. Stillwell, an esteemed resident of Gravesend, was born October 13, 1854, at Gravesend, in a house which is still standing. His ancestors were among a company of thirty-nine people who received grants of land from Lady Moody in 1643, and one purchased a plantation, thus becoming the owner of a portion of Coney Island. His father was Jacques R. Stillwell and his grandfather was Richard I. Stillwell. The former was born at Gravesend. Representatives of the family have long been associated with things which have formed the history of this portion of the Empire state, for the family was founded on Long Island in 1638 and has been identified with Gravesend since 1643, Nicholas Stillwell being the first to locate at that place. In 1640 he was associated with Governor Stuyvesant in fighting the Indians. Richard I. Stillwell, the grandfather, was a very powerful man, noted for the strength in all the athletic contests throughout the region around. Jacques R. Stillwell was a farmer by occupation, providing for his family by agricultural pursuits. His was a noble nature, his life being characterized by benevolence and charity. he married Miss Cornelia Stryker, a daughter of Samuel G. Stryker, of Gravesend, and both died in the year 1898. They had two children, Charles R. and Frederick, the latter a resident of Hackensack, New Jersey.

Charles R. Stillwell mastered the branches of English learning taught in the schools of Gravesend, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn, but at the age of fourteen he put aside his text-books and took his place upon the farm and for some time he was associated with the work of developing and improving the fields. For thirteen years he was engaged in the cultivation and sale of flowers, and as a florist carried on a successful business. He is now quite extensively engaged in the raising of fancy fruit, and in this enterprise is meeting with well deserved success. Industry and careful management have always characterized his work, and as the result of his diligence and perseverance he has acquired a comfortable competence. In connection with his other business affairs he is now engaged in speculating and his keen discernment, sagacity and foresight enables him to place his money so that it brings a good return.

Advertisement from the souvenir program of the fair of the wives and daughters of the members of Franklin Lodge, No. 182, I.O.O.F., at Sheepshead Bay, 26-28 April 1911. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

In public affairs Mr. Stillwell has been quite prominent, having been called upon to fill a number of positions of trust and responsibility. In politics he is an independent Republican. He served as postmaster at Gravesend from 1890 until 1894, resigning his position in the latter year. He was then appointed shore inspector and acted in that capacity until 1898. He was also deputy inspector of the New York harbor from 1895 until 1898. He belongs to the Odd Fellows fraternity, which is his only lodge connection. On the 23d of October, 1879, occurred the marriage of Mr. Stillwell and Miss Elizabeth Voorhies, a daughter of John L. Voorhies, who for many years served as town clerk of Gravesend. They have three children: Walter E., Elizabeth J. and Cornelia E., and their home is upon a part of the original grant of 1643. Coming of a family of prominence, Mr. Stillwell’s record has cast no shadow upon the untarnished name and he is widely known as one of the leading, honorable and substantial citizens of his community.

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Gravesend Characters Past: Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, here is a profile of Thomas Ferguson, transcribed from Peter Ross and William S. Pelletreau, A History of Long Island From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (New York and Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1905), vol. 3, pp. 136-7:

Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Thomas Ferguson (1845-1903)

Thomas Ferguson, deceased, for many years a foremost citizen of Brooklyn, known for his success in commercial affairs and for his intelligent enterprise in promoting community interests, as well as for his lovable personal traits of character, was of Scotch ancestry and birth, coming from the same sturdy stock which contributed so largely to the settlement of New York and the contiguous region, and which bore so useful a part in the founding of religious and educational institutions in the new world.

He was born in Scotland in June, 1845. He acquired a broad and liberal education, being predisposed to a ministerial life, a calling from which he turned aside on account of threatened ill health which promised to impair his usefulness as a clergyman. But the moral qualities which had impelled him to look to the ministry were deeply planted and governed his conduct throughout his entire life, and were the inspiration which lay at the bottom of his every act, whether in business or social life.

In 1866, having reached the years of manhood, Mr. Ferguson came to Brooklyn, New York, and became associated in business with his uncle, John F. Phillips, who was extensively engaged in the whiting business in Brooklyn. The firm conducted business with marked success, and was known to the mercantile world as the largest importers of whiting in the country.

During these years, Mr. Ferguson was also busied with important enterprises which were at once profitable to himself and of marked advantage to the community. With characteristic foresight and excellent business judgment, he made early and large investments in Gravesend real estate, and for some years prior to his death he was known as one of the most extensive individual property holders in that beautiful suburb. He was for many years a commissioner of common lands of Coney Island. He was a leader in a few of the most prominent clubs–the Amaranth Club, of which he was president for two years; the Montauk Club, and the Union League Club. His connection with these was, however, only in lines of usefulness; for, while a man of excellent social traits, his great delight was in his home and family.

Mr. Ferguson was married in 1879 to Miss Lizzie C. Gibson, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a well educated lady, of cultured tastes, and in hearty accord with her husband in all his concerns, aiding him with her counsel in his many liberal benefactions to charitable institutions and to individuals, and presiding over his home with charming grace. The family residence on Ocean Parkway, one of the most beautiful in all that region, was ever open to their many friends, to whom they dispersed a generous hospitality.


Thomas Ferguson residence as depicted in Jere. Johnson Jr., Building a Nation and Where to Build Ideal American Homes (1891). The Ferguson house stood at 1375 Ocean Parkway near the northeast corner of Avenue N.

This beautiful association was closed by the death of Mr. Ferguson on January 23, 1903. He had not yet completed his fifty-eighth year, and the end came when he was in the fulness of his mental powers, when his usefulness appeared to be of increasing worth to his fellows, and when all happiness and comfort was in his home. The sad event awakened sincere sorrow throughout the community, a sorrow which found expression among all classes. The character of Mr. Ferguson was feelingly depicted by his pastor, who referred to him as a man of sterling worth, physically strong, mentally alert, and morally sound, a sincere Christian gentleman. Those who had been associated with him in business affairs spoke in terms of unstinted praise of his strict integrity, fine sense of honor, and charitableness of disposition in all his relations, whether in business or in social life. He was a man broadly generous in all cases which appealed to him as deserving, but so modest in the bestowment of his beneficences that his good works went unknown except as they were heralded by the recipients of his bounty. And so he left to her who survived him, and to the friends at her side, the fragrance of a memory without blemish, the recollections of a beautiful life.

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (

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