Growing Up in the Shadow of the Lott House
by Lisa Santoro
As a child growing up in Marine Park, the Lott House was an enigma to me. Amidst a block of prototypical Marine Park homes of brick and siding with neatly manicured front yards and carports, there stood the Lott House, in stark juxtaposition to its surroundings. Despite not knowing much about the building, I was utterly fascinated by it. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was proud to have such a historic treasure in my proverbial back yard, something that I — in my young mind — felt my neighborhood was otherwise lacking. Although I would not have known it at the time, this was my first true combined appreciation of architecture and history as well as the recognition of the importance of such a site within the community. But as grandiose as it was to me, it was also a frightening sight to behold, given its state of disrepair and decay. As a result, the neighborhood kids would attest that the house was haunted. Which made sense. It was, after all, an old, wooden, rickety, presumably abandoned home, surrounded by a large parcel of land full of overgrown weeds and often littered with trash. For years, the Lott House remained in this state. A building that had all the potential to be a neighborhood treasure had been reduced to a broken-down eyesore. This is my memory of the Lott House in the early 1990s.
Yet as I write this piece, my childhood treasure is undergoing restoration. The newly-restored Hendrick Lott House is anticipated to be open to the public in the Spring of 2014.
The Lott House is not just important to me — it’s important to the whole of Brooklyn. The Lott family (comprised of patriarch Engelbart Lott, his wife and two sons) was one of the early Dutch families to arrive in New Amsterdam in 1652, under the rule of Peter Stuyvesant. Despite originally settling in the Town of Flatlands (the Dutch name was Midwout, from which the current neighborhood of Midwood derives its name), not all later generations of the family would remain there. Engelbart’s great grandson Johannes Lott would move south to the Town of Flatlands (Amersfoort), purchasing a farm from the Voorhies family – another prominent Dutch family with ties in Flatlands from 1660 (see map).
On this site, Johannes built a small wooden house for his family in 1720 — the original Lott homestead. A prosperous farmer, he continued to purchase property all throughout Flatlands, with his holdings eventually extending to Jamaica Bay. In fact, the road which passed through the property, called “Lott’s Lane,” led to a spot on the bay called “Lott’s Landing” – a sign of the Lott family’s presence in the area. Today, Lott’s Lane partially exists – yet due to the installation of the street grid and residential construction, this path terminates amid a series of backyards almost a mile north of where the original Lott House stood.
The 18-room homestead we see today was built in 1800 by Johannes’s grandson, Hendrick I. Lott. He built this new house on the property, just a short distance southwest of the existing house from 1720. Yet Johannes’s house was not completely lost. Hendrick removed the kitchen and attached it to the eastern end of the new house, forming the kitchen wing. The original house is distinguished from the rest of the house by its smaller size, more steeply pitched roof and lower doorway. A ones-tory, shed-roofed extension was built on this eastern wing to store firewood. To balance out the new homestead, Hendrick built another wing on the western side to ensure the house’s proportionality.
The homestead is one of the finest examples of the Dutch Colonial style in all of New York City. Clad in white wooden shingles, the house is surrounded by chimneys and features the defining gambrel roof with a spring (or overshot) eave which forms the roof of the columned porch. The house is full of quaint country-like features – such as its shuttered windows, hinged wooden doors, a hatchway leading to the cellar and wood latticework underneath the porch. The southern-facing wood porch wraps around the main section to provide access to the original doorway into the east wing. A rear porch was later added to the northern side– in keeping with the house’s symmetry. By 1825, the farm in which the Lott’s grew potatoes, cabbage, wheat and vegetables had grown to 200 acres and included barns, outbuildings and a separate stone kitchen.
Generations of Lotts would continue to live in the house despite the family’s dwindling landholdings in the years to come. In 1874, some of the original farm property was sold after the death of Hendrick’s son and heir of the property, Johannes H. Lott. When the current owner John Bennett Lott, the last farmer to inhabit the house, died in 1923, a significant portion of his landholdings were sold for the residential development of Marine Park. All that remained was the Lott Homestead and the threequarters of an acre parcel that it sat upon. The last descendant of the Lott family, Ella Suydam, lived in the house until her death in 1989. It was after her death that the house fell into severe disrepair, as referenced earlier in my personal reflections.
Nearly a decade later in 1998, Brooklyn College embarked on an archaeological dig of the site, unearthing a wealth of treasures that I assume will be on display within the house once it is completely restored. Such artifacts include dolls, pipes, a gold pocket watch, clam shells, pottery, farm tools and house wares. The team also uncovered multiple pieces of evidence that African religious rituals took place within the house – supporting the claim that slaves were once housed here. Although there was proof that the Lotts owned slaves, the discovery of slave quarters came as a surprise to the archaeological team. In total contradiction, it has also been stated by Lott descendants that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. This claim has credence as well as the archaeological team discovered a small hidden chamber within the eave of the gambrel roof. Uncovering these various, yet contradicting, layers of history only reaffirms the importance of this site.
Without question the Lott House is an architectural treasure. But what distinguishes this homestead from other historic Dutch houses is that it gives a clear sense of the home’s original setting and purpose. This is the case because it has been preserved on a fairly large parcel of land; other historic homes, re-oriented and crammed into the street grid, cannot offer this. As a planner and preservationist, I would often yearn to live in some of the more historic areas of Brooklyn. But then I remember my childhood, and it makes me realize how fortunate I am to have grown up in the shadow of such an historic and significant place as the Lott House.