DNAInfo: Underground Railroad Home Earns Landmarks ‘Victory,’ Advocates Say

By Maya Rajamani, 9/23/16

CHELSEA — The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has asked the owner of a historic house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to remove a controversial rooftop addition — a request longtime advocates are viewing as a “victory.”

For years, preservationists have fought Tony Mamounas, the owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St. between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, over a fifth-floor addition he built after the city’s Department of Buildings mistakenly issued a permit allowing its construction.

Mamounas recently filed plans with the LPC that included adding a bulkhead to the rooftop addition in question and improving the home’s facade. But at a Tuesday hearing, the commission asked him to eliminate the entire rooftop addition and return to a future hearing with “additional information about the facade work,” an LPC spokeswoman said.

Kelly Carroll, director of advocacy and community outreach at the Historic Districts Council, said her group felt the commission’s determination was “amazing.”

“For us, we see it as a victory,” she said. “[The rooftop addition], for us, that was the crux of the argument.”

The home, which was landmarked as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District in 2009, was a stop on the Underground Railroad when abolitionists Abigail and James Hopper Gibbons owned it in the 1800s.

Preservationists have argued that restoring the home’s original roof is important because the family escaped over the roof when an angry mob attacked during the 1863 Draft Riots. They also say Mamounas constructed the fifth-floor addition illegally after it earned landmark status.

The city’s Board of Standards and Appeals and a panel of four state Supreme Court judges previously found that Mamounas should not have added a fifth floor to the home without the LPC’s permission.

In a joint statement submitted to the LPC as testimony on Tuesday, elected officials including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried maintained Mamounas’ recent LPC application was an attempt to get the commission to “retroactively approve his illegal rooftop addition.”

Attorney Marvin Mitzner, who represents Mamounas, did not immediately respond to request for comment on Thursday.

Preservationist Fern Luskin, a professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College who has been actively campaigning against the rooftop addition for years, said she felt relieved by Tuesday’s turn of events.

“I was scared that the LPC had earlier sent signals that they were going to allow the fifth-story addition to be grandfathered [in],” she said.

Carroll, however, expressed some concerns that Mamounas would drag his feet on returning to the LPC with new plans that take the commission’s requests into account.

“We are a bit apprehensive about the future cooperation, and we’re hoping a public meeting [will] be scheduled with this applicant as soon as possible,” she said.

Longtime Hooper-Gibbons House advocate Julie Finch called the LPC’s request a “tentative victory.”

“I’m hoping that good news will be confirmed, but I’m waiting until it’s written down in ink, on paper,” she said.