The grand mansion. Photo: Google Maps.

A boarded-over Bed-Stuy mansion at 87 MacDonough Street has become embroiled in a mystery that Internet sleuths have been all over this week.

The 1863 landmarked mansion, owned by the United Order of Tents — the oldest Black women’s fraternal organization in the country — was spotted in a listing on Zillow earlier this month.

The odd listing, which has since been removed, had the crumbling property for sale for $9.75 million. It also described bizarre details like the “blue glow of the TV” in one room and a “bar full of liquor bottles.”

The other problem? It was listed by a person claiming to be the building’s owner, with a thumbnail photo of a young Black woman that can be traced to a hairstyles website via Pinterest, as Brownstoner reported.

The listing has been removed, but the odd decsription remains. Photo: Sceenshot/Zillow.

“Is someone trying to pocket a deposit or steal from the oldest Black women’s fraternal organization in the country?,” Brownstoner reporter Cate Corcoran wrote.

Her article was posted to a Bed-Stuy community Facebook group, where many residents expressed their dismay about the sale of the historic property. The grand villa is one of the oldest surviving structures in the neighborhood, the Historic Districts Council of New York said.

“The Tents house needs to be restored,” Apryl Storms posted on Facebook. “It should be a museum so the stories of the Tents do not get lost. Those women cared for the neighborhood for over a hundred years of living there. It would be awful for this piece of history to disappear.”

A former carriage house and the rear of 87 MacDonough in 1929. Photo: New York Public Library

However the interest in the story soon started revealing answers.

Brownstoner reported after its article was published, one of its readers had come forward to say the Zillow listing was not a scam, but a clue in an online scavenger hunt created by Great Gotham Challenge.

Great Gotham Challenge describes itself as “New York City’s most premium customizable and luxurious immersive experience for teams, companies and private clients.” Tickets for a recent event are selling for $150 per team. 

“The unusual listing copy — including the mention of the lamp and TV — gives clues for solving the puzzle, according to a Brownstoner reader who participated in the challenge earlier this month,” Brownstoner reported.

The Great Gotham Challenge has gone online during the pandemic. Photo: Screenshot / Great Gotham Challenge

BK Reader reached out to the company for a response, however a spokesperson said they “can’t get authorization for an official statement that quickly given the holidays.”

While the Zillow listing has been taken down, its unusual description remains on the website when you search the property. Zillow’s media team did not respond to BK Reader’s request for comment.

The MacDonough Street mansion is one of the oldest lodges for African-American women in the nation.

The house was originally built for local hops and malt merchant William A. Parker in 1863. Since 1945 it was occupied by the United Order of the Tents.

Co-founder of the Order Annetta M. Lane of Norfolk, Virginia. Image: The United Order of Tents

The United Order of the Tents was founded in 1867 in Virginia by two formerly enslaved women, Annetta M. Lane, and Harriet R. Taylor, as part of the underground railroad. The secretive society is run entirely by Black women and strives to provide help to those who need it the most through feeding people and providing nursing care wherever necessary. However because of their secrecy, not much is known about the group’s work in Bed-Stuy.

“We’re not very good about communicating with the public about our work,” Charleston member Ann Blandin told the Post & Courier in 2016. “There is a lot we can’t tell as well because it is a secret organization.”

In recent years, other Tent-owned properties have also fallen into disrepair due to a lack of funds.

With the mansion being in the news recently, interest in the property and what will happen to it next has piqued.

Many hope it will be restored or turned into a museum, so Bed-Stuy natives may finally know a little more about the works the secretive United Order of Tents did in the neighborhood for so many years.

The United Order of Tents has been reached for comment.

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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