A major piece of abolitionist history in New York City looks like it is on its way to being restored. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission took up the case of 339 West 29th Street, also known as the Hopper-Gibbons House, in Chelsea.
The house is located between Eighth and Ninth avenues and it was originally built between 1846 and 1847, though it was altered by Harry Gerson in 1951.
It is the only surviving stop on the Underground Railroad in Manhattan. It played host to Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and William Lloyd Garrison. A slave wedding is said to have taken place there. Further, as the story goes, when a mob set the place ablaze during what are referred to somewhat simplistically as the Draft Riots in 1863, its occupants fled to safety across the rooftops.
In 2009, it fell under the LPC’s protection as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District. However, the past decade or so has not been kind to the house. Owner Tony Mamounas sought to expand the building. Several city agencies got involved and, even irrespective of landmark status, a fifth floor was added without a valid permit and the façade was replaced with stucco, though with a valid permit.
Now, he wants to spruce the place up, even expand it on the rear and set back that fifth story by 10 feet. The proposal was presented by land use attorney Marvin Mitzner and Dan Damir Sehic of C3D Architecture. It also includes re-installation of non-historic fire escapes on the front and rear, because combustible buildings require two means of egress.
Of course, if the LPC was to approve that proposal, it would be legalizing something the courts have ruled to be illegal. That lead to 22 pieces of public testimony, all against the proposal, including State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who said “The building must be immediately restored.” Michael Noble of Manhattan Community Board 4 brought his colleagues’ concurring opinion.
The testimony of the Historic Districts Council’s Kelly Carroll was educational.
“HDC thanks Friends of LaMartine Place, our elected officials and our partner organizations for their consistent and steadfast support and collaborative work for all of these years to preserve the Hopper-Gibbons house’s legacy. Our collective cause has brought us together once again in what is the latest attempt to legitimize the marring of history.
“The persisting presence of the illegal fifth floor addition is an affront to our history, our culture, and the law. From start to finish, this catastrophe has been self-inflicted by the owner and has come at the expense of the community, and all of New York.
“Although it may be correct under the broadest interpretation of the law, HDC is appalled by the audacity of this application and urges to the Commissioners to consider deeply the standards by which it should be judged. What the owner has defined as appropriate in the renderings submitted has been defined as illegal by the NYC Department of Buildings and the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division. Even more concerning, another city agency, the DOB, has failed to take action to correct this situation by court order for over a year, resulting in the proposal now before the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Let the record show that if the NYC DOB enforced its own “Order to Correct” and removed this illegal addition, this proposal would be fundamentally different. As it is, the LPC is being asked to manage the Building Department’s business. It would be sound and sensible policy for the two agencies to coordinate on this matter and insist on the removal of this illegal construction.
“Putting aside the paramount facts of this addition’s construction, this proposal is breath-takingly inappropriate by the Commission’s own standards. The applicant has stated that the “back story” of this building is “not relevant” to this current application to the LPC. We could not disagree more, because at no. 339, its history, and back story, is everything. This is one of the few sites in New York City that was designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for its cultural significance, as opposed to aesthetics. This row of houses survived the Draft Riots of 1863 which specifically targeted this house because of its undeniable role in the Abolitionist movement. No. 339 West 29TH Street is the only known, extant Underground Railroad stop in Manhattan, and as such, is a physical monument to the greatest human rights movement in American history; the battle for which almost ended us as a nation.”
Julie Finch, who has also been active in the charge against the Howard Hughes Corporation’s redevelopment of the South Street Seaport, spoke of her white slaveholder ancestors and said “Black history matters.” HDC President Daniel Allen noted that his wife is a direct descendant of Garrison. Of the owner’s efforts, he said, “This has to stop.”
Representatives of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Municipal Art Society, the Victorian Society, and the City Club also testified against the proposal. On top of all of that, the LPC received 135 e-mails in opposition.
As for the commissioners, their general counsel, Mark Silberman, affirmed that the fifth floor has no legal status and that the commissioners would be entirely within their right to demand its removal.
In fact, that seems to be what they will eventually do.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan did ask, of the proposal, “Would it be appropriate if nothing was there?”
They might, but Commissioner Frederick Bland brought up something the LPC has been tackling with of recent – what is physically appropriate versus what is culturally appropriate. Conflicting arguments about building height uniformity aside, a major event is said to have happened on the roof of this house. So, even it would look fine, it still might not be appropriate to approve a rooftop addition covering it.
Chair Srinivasan said the proposal for the roof does give her “great pause,” though the proposal for an expansion of the rear is different.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum, who pointed out that the only reason the applicant needs the front fire escape is because they are trying to put two units on most of the floors, called the situation “very interesting” and was with his colleagues when he said the standard of visibility doesn’t come into play here. Usually, if a proposed addition can’t be seen from any public way, the LPC has little reason to not approve it.
This, of course, is a special case. As it was nearly 6 p.m., the commissioners decided not to actually rule on the case, but to have the applicant re-work the proposal, presumably with the fifth floor removed, and return to the commission. Stay tuned.
View the full presentation slides here: