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Chelsea Now – Preservationists Win: Hopper-Gibbons House Owner Ordered to Subtract Addition

By Dusica Malesevic, May 24

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Locked for years in a battle to restore Manhattan’s only documented Underground Railroad site, preservationists have won a major victory regarding the contentious fifth-floor addition to a landmarked building known as the Hopper-Gibbons House.

During a Tues., May 23 public meeting of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), a decision was reached that the addition was inappropriate for the row house at 339 W. 29th St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.), denying that part of the owner’s application. The current structure will be removed, restoring the building to its original height — a roof that has historic significance that ties back to the Civil War and the abolitionist movement.

“I’m like shaking with victory because it’s a little bit like my baby,” Fern Luskin told Chelsea Now outside the LPC’s office at 1 Centre St.

She called the commission’s decision “the most amazing thing that could happen,” saying that she has been fighting since 2007 against the addition. “I was up on my roof and I saw the steel girders go up and I was very distressed about it. That’s when I delved into the history and I went to the Historic Districts Council,” she said.

Led by Luskin and Julie Finch, Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House Underground Railroad Site spearheaded an effort against the addition, enlisting the help of the Historic Districts Council, the Lamartine Place Block Association, Save Chelsea, elected officials, and the community.

“This is amazing,” Finch said of the hard-won decision. “This is completely amazing. I am just — I’m inarticulate.”

Attorney Michael Hiller said the LPC did its job Tuesday. “I think I can speak for everyone here that we’re thrilled with the result and we trust that the Landmarks Preservation Commission will continue to stand behind that result, and that this is officially over,” he said.

The commission’s decision is that “no rooftop addition could ever be considered to be appropriate within the standard of the Landmarks Law,” Hiller said. “Any rooftop addition would always impinge upon, impair, deface, and defile the cultural significance of this particular landmark.”

He added, “No rooftop addition could ever be constructed which is why the members of the opposition are so pleased with the result today.”

Fern Luskin, left, and Julie Finch, right, fought a rooftop addition to the landmarked Hopper-Gibbons House (seen here on May 23 with attorney Jack Lester, after the LPC decided the addition was inappropriate). Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic.

Abigail Hopper-Gibbons was a prominent abolitionist who participated in several social reform movements. Her home at what was then known as 19 Lamartine Place was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was targeted during the Draft Riots of 1863. The rioters set the home on fire, and the Hopper-Gibbons family escaped by the roof, running across the buildings to safety.

In 2009, the house was landmarked as part of the Lamartine Historic District.

Hiller said the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) had issued an emergency declaration requiring that the addition be removed.

Marvin Mitzner, lawyer for the building’s owner, Tony Mamounas, confirmed that the DOB had issued that work order, but could not say when the structure would be taken down. He said they are waiting for the written letter from the LPC detailing the actions they took on Tuesday, and then will discuss the next appropriate steps.

“We’re disappointed that they didn’t approve the rooftop addition but we’re pleased they approved other aspects of the application,” he told Chelsea Now in a Wed., May 24 phone interview.

Jack Lester, attorney for the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House, said the LPC’s decision is a testament to the hard work and commitment of Luskin and Finch.

“They fought this through the courts, through the Board of Standards and Appeals, back to the courts, back to the Appellate Division. So this is a long process, and this is a culmination and a validation of that process,” he said. “We spent hours and nights going over legal papers, redrafting affidavits, submitting them to judges.”

Luskin recalled furiously working the day before Hurricane Sandy hit “because we knew the electricity would go any second.”

Lester said a history that has been largely lost — what happened during the Draft Riots, how they persecuted African Americans, how they went after abolitionists — has a chance to be highlighted with the possibility of class trips to the Hopper-Gibbons House, which he called “a monument to the abolitionist movement. This is the only intact symbol of that movement existing in New York City.”

For years, preservation groups, the community, and elected officials have been fighting a fifth-floor rooftop addition of Hopper-Gibbons House, saying the structure mars its historic significance. Seen here, the existing and proposed south elevation. Image via Historic Districts Council.

In an email statement to Chelsea Now, State Senator Brad Hoylman called the LPC’s decision a “tremendous victory for historic preservation, community activism, and the rule of law. The Hopper-Gibbons House is an irreplaceable piece of our national history and we have a responsibility to protect it for future generations.”

He added, “I’m profoundly grateful to Fern Luskin and Julie Finch, who have been the citizen heroes in this long saga, as well as Community Board 4 and all my government colleagues.”

Hoylman, along with Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Councilmember Corey Johnson and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried submitted a letter asking the LPC Tuesday “to deny the certificate of appropriateness application for this historic landmark once and for all.”

Gottfried praised the Hopper-Gibbons House as an important part of New York City’s history.

“The decision this week by the Landmarks Preservation Commission is gratifying to all the New Yorkers who fought long and hard to preserve this historic building,” Gottfried said in an email statement to Chelsea Now. “It wouldn’t have been possible without the determined advocacy of countless preservationists, community activists, and supporters of organizations like Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Save Chelsea.”