The Friends of Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site & Lamartine Place Historic District

Sun 05 2016 , by

Hopper-Gibbons House

Hopper-Gibbons House Saga Has a New Addition

BY SEAN EGAN | The latest of the dozens of battles (fought both in and out of court) in the years-long war over the fate of the Hopper-Gibbons House has ended in favor of The Friends of Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site & Lamartine Place Historic District, who seek to protect the integrity of the historic, documented Underground Railroad site located at 339 W. 29th St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Ave.).

The stop at Community Board 4’s (CB4) Chelsea Land Use Committee meeting on May 16 found the Friends and their allies seeking CB4’s denial of support for the owner’s latest plans for the construction, which will be presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on June 21. While this step is promising, the House that once served as an abolition center and safe haven for runaway slaves still has a long way to go to return to its former glory.

 In the past, trouble has surrounded the building because at the outset of construction, the owner was in possession of a permit erroneously issued by the Department of Buildings (DOB), rather than the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) — and began to build a fifth floor on the row house. In 2009, soon after the invalid DOB permit was revoked and Stop Work Orders were issued (though, reportedly, construction continued), the building was granted landmark status as part of the Lamartine Historic District. Thusly, in 2013, the BSA ordered owner Tony Mamounas to get approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) before moving ahead with construction. This decision was reinforced both in Manhattan Supreme Court in 2013, and more recently the NY Supreme Court Appellate Division in 2015 — at which point it was noted by electeds and advocates that the LPC had the authority to make the owner restore the building to its prior state.

Mamounas’ architect presented plans the owner hopes will be approved by the LPC. Photo by Sean Egan.

Lawyer Marvin Mitzner, speaking on behalf of the owner that evening, was there to present to the committee the plans for the building that the owner is currently seeking, and planning on bringing before the LPC. Introducing the project’s architect, the assembled were shown renderings of what they ultimately want the building to look like. Their current plan includes keeping an altered fifth floor on the building in a bulkhead, set back seven feet and at a slant, in order to make it less visible from across the street, creating the illusion (from certain angles) of it being flush with surrounding roofs. They also noted that keeping this floor, with stairs, would provide safer access to the roof.

Other touted improvements to the building included a brownstone base, a new brick façade, and new windows to give it a “more distinct profile” — a positive step, according to Mitzner, who characterized the structure as an “ugly stucco building” that is an “eyesore” in the district. 

Committee member Walter Mankoff spared no time taking Mitzner and Mamounas to task after the presentation.

“I do recall year after year, and month after month,” noted Mankoff, “that construction kept going on, on the fifth floor, deliberately violating rules,” making him find it hard to sympathize with their call to support the plan.…

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