Lamartine Place: Saved for Posterity

October 16th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Explore New York

One hundred years from now, most of those who walk on West 29th Street in Manhattan may not know what Fern Luskin, Julie Finch, and a small group of local citizens did to preserve the block between Eighth and Ninth avenues. But in all likelihood they will see, largely intact, the mid-19th century row houses that possessed an important role in the struggles of African-Americans for freedom before and during the Civil War.

Thanks to the tenacious efforts of these preservationists, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on Tuesday unanimously voted to accord this block landmark protection, designating it as the Lamartine Place Historic District. The LPC designated 12 row houses, from 333-355 West 29th St., as a historic district.

These row houses have a distinctive and remarkable history, both in the life of New York City and the United States. They are connected with important events in the 1850s and 1860s, and one house is linked to the Underground Railroad. The home, 339 West 29th St., was a documented “safe house” on the Underground Railroad where noted Quaker abolitionists Abigail Hopper Gibbons, known as Abby, and her husband, James Sloan Gibbons, lived. Runaway slaves found sanctuary in the Gibbons’ home on their escape route to Canada.

The Gibbons’ house was also a meeting place for abolitionists, who were fervent in their desire to bring an end to slavery. The block became one of the settings of violence and seething tensions during New York City’s Draft Riots of 1863, in which mobs opposed to the Union Army’s conscription rioted for four days during July.

“This 19th century enclave was an eyewitness to the dramatic events that shook New York City during the Draft Riots of 1863,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Robert Tierney in the LPC’s announcement of the historic district. “One of the houses that was directly attacked was also a haven for fleeing slaves, and a home to the abolitionists who assisted them.”

A Contrast With Midtown

If you walk in the North Chelsea neighborhood now, it’s hard to believe that this quiet block of row houses has survived, a fairly intact 19th century oasis amid development and much change occurring nearby. It’s located just two blocks south of the southern perimeter of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Developer William Torrey, in association with Cyrus Mason, a New York University professor, built the 12 row houses that now comprise the historic district, completing them in 1847. Originally, the homes were of the Greek Revival style, and they maintain much of this look, though Renaissance Revival elements (such as the cornices) were later added. According to the LPC, the street originally was named after Alphonse de Lamartine, a French poet, writer, and statesman who played a role in the French Revolution of 1848.

Ironically, the threat to and subsequent alteration of 339 West 29th St. – when the owner began in 2007 to construct an addition on top of the row house – sparked the campaign to protect and landmark the houses. Fern Luskin, a professor and an art and architecture historian who lives on the block, was distressed when she first saw the construction. She began to dig into the house’s history and discovered documentation that it was a safe house for the Underground Railroad. Julie Finch, who lives nearby though not on the block, said she first found out about the situation at Quaker meeting and then joined in Luskin’s effort.

Lamartine Place Historic District

Lamartine Place, with the construction at 339 West 29th St.

Since then, the two have become a team with single-minded devotion aimed at stopping and reversing the construction of the rooftop addition and obtaining landmark protections for the Hopper-Gibbons House and the block. Luskin researched many historic records and archives such as tax maps and city directories. The two women have also relied on Abby Hopper Gibbons’ correspondence, fugitive slave records, books about the period, and primary sources such as original reports on the riots. Both now have encyclopedic knowledge of the Gibbons’ abolitionist activities, the draft riot attacks, and the suffering of fugitive slaves at that time.

Celebratory Moment

Those who fight for historic preservation for countless hours, make dozens of phone calls, stay up late researching, and strain their eyesight poring over records and Googling don’t always emerge victorious. But on Tuesday, Finch and Luskin could take a breather and savor a victory. Asked Tuesday how she felt after the commission’s vote to designate Lamartine Place, Finch said, “Wow! Wow! We’re so happy.”

In Finch’s view, Lamartine Place’s landmark protection is a crucial component of preserving the city’s African-American history of that era – history to which West 29th Street has such a direct tie. “To me personally, it means that the lynchings that took place (in New York City) during the draft riots are memorialized,” Finch added.

Once rioting broke out, angry mobs attacked many blacks and abolitionists. The mobs lynched 11 black men in New York during the unrest, according to In the Shadow of Slavery by Leslie Harris. Hundreds fled the city. Finch read of one African-American man who left his home to buy a loaf of bread and was attacked and lynched. The rioters set upon a man named Abraham Franklin at the corner of West 27th Street and Seventh Avenue and lynched him in front of his own mother, a chilling incident that Finch found in researching an 1863 report on the riots.

New York City had become a hotbed of tensions between those who sought the abolition of slavery and became increasingly vocal and active in their support for the Union and Emancipation, and others who sympathized with the Confederacy and opposed the law to draft men to fight for the Union cause. Antiwar newspaper publishers especially whipped up feelings among the white working class with inflammatory attacks against the conscription law, according to In the Shadow of Slavery. The feelings that boiled over into violent rioting spilled over onto Lamartine Place.

The Gibbons’ home had already been attacked once during 1863, after they draped their home in bunting to celebrate President Lincoln’s delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1 of that year, according to the LPC. During the draft riots, an angry group set fire to the Gibbons’ house, using torches, and ransacked it. Two of the Gibbons’ daughters fled over neighboring roofs to the house of their uncle. Joseph Hodges Choate, a lawyer and friend of the Gibbons’, enlisted the help of a neighbor at the end of the block and had a carriage waiting in which the girls were able to escape safely.

If they were afraid, it did not stop Hopper Gibbons, her husband, or her father, Isaac, from their endeavors to see slavery abolished and to protect escaping slaves. Isaac Hopper was very key in first organizing the system through which slaves from the South were able to hide in “safe houses” and escape northward and to Canada, and he is known as the “father of the underground railroad.” Others involved in the anti-slavery movement stayed in or visited 339 West 29th St., including New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, abolitionist John Brown, social reformer and women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison, who helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society. (For more on the life and social reform work of Abby Hopper Gibbons, see Mindful Walker’s “Sparks Over an Underground Railroad Site.”)

What About the Construction?

Enlisting the help of state legislators, city officials, local preservationists, and neighbors, Luskin and Finch have sought to not only obtain landmark protection but to stop the construction of the additional story and rooftop penthouse at 339 West 29th St. In May of this year, the city Department of Buildings (DOB) first halted construction, stating that the work didn’t conform to the owner’s approved plans. The DOB, citing additional violations, has now revoked the owners’ application for further work.

Though they’ve achieved a major victory with the landmark approval, one that especially will benefit people now and in the future who care about the city’s and the nation’s history, Luskin and Finch are not stopping their work on behalf of this block. They want to get the Hopper-Gibbons House listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Finch said. Also, ideas have been floated about someday creating an educational center at the former Underground Railroad sanctuary. (The two women have also drawn awards for their actions: They received a Preservation Award from the Underground Railroad Free Press for their work in saving the Hopper-Gibbons House as well as an earlier award from New York’s Historic District Council.)

But first things first: Finch, Luskin, and others are seeking to have what has been built of the house’s vertical addition – which protrudes well above the rooflines of the remaining homes – removed. As Luskin explained, while many of her neighbors are happy about the historic district designation, “their next question is, so is it (the addition) coming down?” For now, scaffolding and a dark covering over the construction remain (photo), standing out among the row of well-kept homes. Luskin hopes that the LPC’s landmarking approval and the media attention it is receiving will provide further muscle to their campaign to have the addition demolished and the prior appearance restored, especially given the Building Department’s actions in finding violations.

Finch and Luskin received much help from a number of people, including Laurence Frommer, who has created a Web site for the campaign; state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and his Chief of Staff Wendi Paster and district aide Medina Napier; Ed Kirkland, who chairs the Community Board 4 Landmarks Task Force; Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council; State Senator Tom Duane and his Deputy Chief of Staff Colin Casey; and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and legislative aide Melanie La Rocca.

So, despite the many hours clocked already, there is little rest among a small group that cares passionately about Lamartine Place and especially the Hopper-Gibbons House. As Luskin said, “We’re excited, but we know it’s not over yet.”

To further explore the history of Lamartine Place and the Hopper-Gibbons House, also see:

Sparks Over an Underground Railroad Site

Teach-In Set at Underground Railroad House

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Rebecca

    Very informative post! I wasn’t even aware that this block of historic homes existed, but I hope they are able to restore it back to its original condition. I’m really grateful for those people who have taken it upon themselves to see places like this restored and remembered for future generations.

  • Susan DeMark


    Despite the street’s location in Manhattan, it would actually be easy to come to New York and not know of this block and its historical significance. But this group of preservation-minded people is definitely changing that! The city and future generations will benefit from their persistence and passion.



  • Carmen

    Hi Susan! It’s so wonderful to see you writing here and to see this blog come into fruition. You have such a warm way of writing – it is very nice to read. I’ll look forward to keeping up with Mindful Walker in the future.

    BTW – also moved my blog over to wordpress after your positive review of it. Hope all is well! Just followed you on twitter. Thanks for following my personal id – but more of my activity is on twitter/nunomad. Let’s keep in touch!

  • Nita

    When I see photos like that of Lamartine Place, I’m reminded of a row of historical buildings along Pittsburgh’s First Avenue whose outward appearance has changed little in over 100 years.

    In viewing such landmarks, I also think of the laborers who built them. I can envision them coming to work each day, unaware of any history to come in the buildings they were erecting. I imagine them leaving a family at home, perhaps carrying some form of lunch for sustenance, laying brick by brick until the job was done. Those men are long gone, but their handiwork remains – preserved by citizens who understood the value of architecture, history, and our cities.

    Structures like those of Lamartine Place and the row in Pittsburgh might be inanimate, but they are backgrounds to events that shaped both New York and Pittsburgh.

    Susan, you continue to breathe life into stone. Keep up the excellent writing!

  • Susan DeMark


    First, thank you! I do aim to “breathe life into stone,” as you so eloquently put it. Those stones tell many stories, don’t they?

    Like you, I often think of the workers who labored day after day to lay brick upon brick. Those are too often the untold stories, of sacrifice and hard work, and I hope to bring some of that to this site. Your description is so awesome that I’d love to have you write something for Mindful Walker!

    I believe I know the row you speak of along First Avenue in Pittsburgh, and I’ve enjoyed walking it. I often marvel as I look at such rows of buildings — whether in New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or another place — to think of how many generations have been here. We definitely follow in others’ footsteps, and we can learn their stories.

    It’s important for future generations to have places such as Lamartine Place, where they can learn about the important and history-shaping events there. I have a feeling that the activists who are responsible for its preservation have only just begun to create a place for people to find out more about the important activities there in the 19th century.

    Again, thanks. I especially enjoy how you share Pittsburgh’s history with this audience!


  • Carl B. Westmoreland


    Now that this important structure has been saved for the moment, it should be acquired and used as a school to teach all of the history that black, white, all Americans contributed to the saving of the house.

    Dr. Luskin, Ms. Finch, an army of high school students from the Bronx, people from a wide segment of America contributed to saving this treasure for the moment – and there is still work to do or its true value will be lost.

  • Susan DeMark

    Hello, Carl,

    Thank you for your comment. You are right in so many ways. Fern Luskin, Julie Finch, and those who have worked with and supported them deserve a world of credit! Future generations will reap the great benefit of what they have sowed.

    It would be a great thing if this home were made into a school or some type of center where many could learn about the Underground Railroad and about the contributions and bravery of people such as Abigail Hopper Gibbons.

    Again, I appreciate your comments and especially the work of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.


  • Arthur Gorton

    In the late 19th century “Lamartine Hall” also housed an Orange Lodge meeting room. And was the starting point for the ill-fated Orange parade of July 12, 1871.

    Strange that it came to be known as “The Orange and Green Riot” when the peaceful 40-minute long parade was murderously attacked by Irish Catholics.

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