Preservationists Prevail, Protecting Hopper-Gibbons House and Binford Mural

Hopper-Gibbons House, on Dec. 29. Work began Dec. 12 to remove the fifth floor | Photo courtesy Fern Luskin

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | In a year that will be remembered as divisive and tumultuous, 2017 drew to a close with two hard-earned bright spots for the history books: a mural created in the 1950s was saved from demolition, and the only documented Underground Railroad site in Manhattan will be restored to its original height.

REMOVAL OF FIFTH FLOOR AT HOPPER-GIBBONS HOUSE | At the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) hearing in May, it was finally decided that an existing fifth-floor addition to the Hopper-Gibbons House, located at 339 W. 29th St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), was inappropriate and had to be taken down.

More than six months after the commission’s decision, the controversial fifth floor is in the process of being removed. The LPC approved the partial demolition and alterations, according to a permit issued in September.

“We’re happy that the work at last has started,” Fern Luskin said by phone, calling Hopper-Gibbons House “a sacred treasure.”

During a decade of advocacy that included court cases and appeals, Luskin and Julie Finch fought to preserve the row house’s historic roof. During the Draft Riots of 1863, rioters set ablaze the home of abolitionist and social reformer Abigail Hopper-Gibbons — her row house, then known as 19 Lamartine Place, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The family fled to safety via the roof.

Having formed Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House Underground Railroad Site, Luskin and Finch led the preservation effort with the help of community members, elected officials, Save Chelsea, the Lamartine Place Block Association, and the Historic Districts Council.

Finch said the removal of the addition, which began on Dec. 12, has been “dragging” and it is “unbelievable,” asking, “What are they doing, working with teaspoons?”

At the end of December, workers were removing what were the apartments on the fifth story | Photo courtesy Fern Luskin

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) determined that that the row house needed to be stabilized while the fifth-floor addition and the rear extension were being removed. The two tenants who were living there have been temporarily relocated as a safety precaution, according to the department.

Marvin Mitzner, lawyer for the building’s owner, Tony Mamounas, said by phone that the delay was due to the owner’s concern for the tenants’ safety. “He couldn’t begin [the work] until the tenants were relocated,” Mitzner said.

He did not have an estimate on how long it would take the work to be completed, noting, “We have to be careful in doing the deconstruction.”

Mitzner pointed out that the LPC had approved modifications to the facade and the rear yard extensions.

The property has had 108 complaints, and the DOB has issued 37 violations, 33 of which are still open, according to the DOB’s website.

“DOB is requiring the building owner to remove illegal and unsafe additions to the top floor and in the backyard, and to make the building safe,” Joseph Soldevere, DOB spokesperson, said in an email statement. “We’re monitoring this work closely and will continue to do so.”

By the end of December, workers were removing what were the apartments on the fifth story, Luskin said later by email.

Preservationist fought to restore the Hopper-Gibbons House (seen here in May 2017) to its original height.. | File photo by Christian Miles

Finch said, “It has been all wearying but we have not given up. I look forward to when the fifth floor finally comes down. Then it will be a historic building.”

JULIEN BINFORD MURAL SAVED | A 1950s mural that long graced the walls of a former bank at W. 14th St. and Sixth Ave. was saved from demolition, and is safely in storage.

The fate of Julien Binford’s “A Memory of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue” was uncertain when Andrew Cronson, a junior at New York University, saw the artwork through the building’s windows, and it “[stood] out prominently among the gritty rubble and dust,” he told Chelsea Now in November.

Cronson contacted Laurence Frommer of Save Chelsea and others in late October. Preservationists and Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office worked with the developer, Gemini Rosemont, to ensure that the mural would be preserved.

The building at 101 W. 14th St. had been sold in April, according to city property records, and demolition permits were filed in October, New York YIMBY reported. A 13-story building with 45 condominiums is slated for the site, YIMBY reported on Dec. 21.

An effort to preserve artist Julien Binford’s mural, which dates back to the 1950s, proved successful. | File photo by Christian Miles

Frommer commended Gemini Rosemont for its efforts.

“We’re certainly elated if the murals are properly preserved and protected,” he said by phone. “In this case, we were lucky that the principal decision maker, i.e. the property owner, was quite willing to do the right thing.”

Frommer also gave credit to another Save Chelsea member, Paul Groncki, who also worked on finding a home for the mural.

Cronson said by email, “It is delightful to see that the mural has been removed from the bank site for permanent future preservation. The developer, Gemini Rosemont, has been very receptive to the efforts so far.”

The Binford mural, as Cronson described it in November, “depicts a jovial street scene in panoramic form of what this area would have looked like in the late 1800s back when there was an elevated train and riders used horses as a mode of transportation.”

Johnson, in an email statement on Dec. 13, said, “It is with great joy I report that Gemini Rosemont, the building site’s developer, has successfully removed the mural from the site’s walls and safely placed it in storage, while long-term plans for the artwork can be determined.”

Brian Ferrier, vice president of development for Gemini Rosemont, said through a spokesperson, “We’re pleased to announce that the Julien Binford mural that was located at the 531 Avenue of the Americas building has been removed from the wall by an art reclamation group, has been packaged and is now in storage.”

He added, “We continue to consider what will be the best home for the mural for the long-term. We are gathering information and evaluating all options for a permanent solution, and we expect it could be up to a year until a decision is made.”

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