Rally Highlights Hopes for Hopper-Gibbons House

Councilmember Corey Johnson (fourth from left) speaks with Fern Luskin (in hat) and Julie Finch (wearing glasses). In the background, draped in netting, is the Hopper-Gibbons House. Photo by Daniel Kwak.

Councilmember Corey Johnson (fourth from left) speaks with Fern Luskin (wearing glasses) and Julie Finch (in hat). In the background, draped in netting, is the Hopper-Gibbons House. Photo by Daniel Kwak.

BY SEAN EGAN | The restoration of the only documented Underground Railroad site in Manhattan continues to be a cause to rally around.

Known as the Hopper-Gibbons House (339 W. 29th St., btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), the building has been caught in a years-long battle between local preservationists — led by the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site — and the site’s owner, Tony Mamounas.

The building was landmarked in 2009 as part of the Lamartine Historic District, shortly after erroneously issued permits were revoked from Mamounas and Stop Work Orders were issued — though work on the house’s contentious fifth-floor addition reportedly continued. Court decisions in both 2013 and 2015 upheld that Mamounas must gain approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) before continuing construction. The LPC does, however, have the ability to make the owner restore the house to its former state; this is what preservationists have been advocating for as the owner prepares to go before the LPC with revised plans.

The site was home to Abigail Hopper-Gibbons, a noted abolitionist, who used the house as a safe place for runaway slaves making their way North, and was also court to visits from Horace Greeley and Frederick Douglass. The house was so well known, in fact, that angry rioters targeted it during the 1863 Draft Riots — causing the Hopper-Gibbons daughters to escape the pandemonium by fleeing across the flush roofs of the houses in the district.

The sunny afternoon of Sat., June 18 was a well-timed occasion for local preservationists to stage their latest rally in front of the Hopper-Gibbons House, as many in attendance noted it was the day before Juneteenth — a celebration of the emancipation of slaves. Draping American flag decorations across the gates and sidewalk shed in front of the building’s entrance, activists handed out copies of a change.org petition (tinyurl.com/gwekkvu) to get the building restored as onlookers assembled and electeds arrived.

American flag decorations, in honor of Juneteenth, hung outside the front door of the Hopper-Gibbons House in preparation for the rally. Photo by Sean Egan.

American flag decorations, in honor of Juneteenth, hung outside the front door of the Hopper-Gibbons House in preparation for the rally. Photo by Sean Egan.

The rally opened with remarks from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a vocal supporter of the house in the past. She not only offered testimony to the building’s importance, but vocalized a common concern surrounding preservation issues: Why aren’t agencies like LPC enforcing laws to the fullest, and why aren’t owners in the wrong being held accountable?

“I’m a big believer that if you do not follow the law, you should be punished,” declared Brewer, noting that the building should be “kept up to the Landmark standard” and have its extra story torn down. “It sets a statement; it sets a stick for others,” she asserted, calling on those present to continue to both celebrate and protect the building.

Following Brewer, Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council decried the situation with the owner as an “affront to our city, our country, our law.”

City Councilmember Corey Johnson had similarly strong words of support for the cause. Noting that the building was steeped in history, Johnson commented, “The addition, covered in stucco, [was] an illegal story that not only disrespects this individual structure, it disrupts and disrespects all of Lamartine Place — the whole Historic District.”

“Why isn’t this guy in jail?” questioned Johnson, asserting that the issue must be resolved as a way of “deterring other bad actors,” and that the LPC must “not reward bad behavior.”

“Enough is enough,” he concluded. “The city needs to come down with its full force of power and law to stop this from happening in the future.”

Fern Luskin of The Friends of Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site & Lamartine Place Historic District then offered her own brief comments on the matter, echoing many of the sentiments heard throughout the afternoon, noting that the fifth floor was “insulting” and that Mamounas was acting with “selfish greed and gall.” Lesley Doyel, representing Save Chelsea, encourated those present to “raise [their] combined voices and say a resounding ‘No’ ” to the mistreatment of the space.

Next, a representative from New York State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried’s office read a statement from Gottfried referring to the addition as a “monstrosity” and urging the Department of Buildings and the LPC to “do what they are empowered to do: approve what is right and disapprove what is wrong. This is blatantly wrong. History must be preserved!”

A sign on the corner of W. 29th St. & Eighth Ave., providing details on the June 18 rally for the Hopper-Gibbons House.
Photo by Sean Egan.

A sign on the corner of W. 29th St. & Eighth Ave., providing details on the June 18 rally for the Hopper-Gibbons House.
Photo by Sean Egan.

The last to speak was Pat Waldo, a tour guide and historic preservation student at Pratt, who emphasized that the house’s history in the Draft Riots should be looked at more closely during this “rise of Führer Trump” as a warning of how “white working class fears” can be provoked in “ugly and deadly” ways. “Now, more than ever, its important for us to examine that connection,” he maintained.

Finch called the rally to a close soon thereafter, and invited anyone present to come to a post-rally party on W. 26th St. The building has not yet been scheduled for an LPC hearing.

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