Hopper-Gibbons House Saga Has a New Addition | chelseanow.com

Hopper-Gibbons House Saga Has a New Addition

A current view of the Hopper-Gibbons House, “ugly stucco” and all. Photo by Sean Egan.

A current view of the Hopper-Gibbons House, “ugly stucco” and all. Photo by Sean Egan.

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 In 2009, soon after the invalid DOB permit was revoked and Stop Work Orders were issued (though, reportedly, construction continued), the building was granted landmark status as part of the Lamartine Historic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.

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.

Fern Luskin, of the Friends of Hopper-Gibbons House, offered one of many takedowns of Mamounas’ treatment of the landmark. Photo by Sean Egan.

Fern Luskin, of the Friends of Hopper-Gibbons House, offered one of many takedowns of Mamounas’ treatment of the landmark. Photo by Sean Egan.

To Mitzner, the fifth floor plans were not unreasonable, “in return for what we’re doing,” calling the design “a significant restoration and improvement of property” that the owner did not necessarily need to do — phrasing that prompted committee member Burt Lazarin to inquire if Mitzner was threatening the board with withholding improvements. Others present noted that the restoration of elements such as the brick façade would not be necessary, had Mamounas not illegally altered the building to begin with.

Next, a representative from State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried — also representing State Senator Brad Hoylman, City Councilmember Corey Johnson, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in this matter — stood up to deliver a strongly worded response against the proposal and the “monstrosity atop [Mamounas’] landmarked building.” Citing the court cases, and pointing out that Mamounas could have used historic tax credits to improve the house, the letter concluded that the “removal of the illegal fifth-floor addition is long overdue,” and that it’s “unacceptable to replace this addition with a roof deck and another structure that ruins the historical character of the building.”

Soon thereafter, Fern Luskin, a member of the Friends who started a change.org petition to restore the House, made remarks about the situation. Referring to the home — which welcomed such luminaries as Horace Greeley, John Brown, and Frederick Douglas, on occasion — as a “monument to abolitionism,” Luskin denounced the owner’s shameful treatment of the House, characterizing their plans as misleading, and asserting that “[the owner] misses the point that this roof is sacrosanct.”

Tour guide and historic preservation student Pat Waldo chided Tony Mamounas while delivering a passionate history lesson. Photo by Sean Egan.

Tour guide and historic preservation student Pat Waldo chided Tony Mamounas while delivering a passionate history lesson. Photo by Sean Egan.

Pat Waldo, a city tour guide and Pratt Institute historic preservation student, delivered an impassioned plea testifying to that fact, by describing the 1863 Draft Riots in detail, stressing its importance as an ugly but vital chapter of New York history. During the riots, the Hopper-Gibbons House was ransacked by rioters, but the Hopper-Gibbons daughters escaped unscathed by running from their roof, across the other flush row house — further emphasizing the way Mamounas’ addition compromises the building’s storied history.

“Tony Mamounas has done more damage to this building than the rioters have,” Waldo accused. “It’s a slap in the face,” he continued, calling for the owner to return the building to its original condition. 

After receiving firm opposition from nearly everyone in the standing room only crowd, Mitzner attempted to defend his client, claiming there was “nothing deceptive about our presentation” and took umbrage with referring to the currently constructed fifth floor as such, rather than as a “superstructure.”

In the end, the committee agreed with the community, voting unanimously to deny support for the construction. They also decided to recommend that the LPC require the owner be made to restore the building to its original condition when he purchased it — a decisive strike against the owner, which received rousing applause from the crowd.

Comments

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