Sparks Over an Underground Railroad Site

May 11th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Explore New York

Is the architectural and historical integrity of a New York City mid-19th century row house that served as a “safe house” for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War being imperiled again? Neighbors and local historic preservationists certainly believe so, and they’re again fighting to stop construction at the Hopper-Gibbons House, at 339 W. 29th St., in Manhattan. The row house was a sanctuary that runaway slaves used while making their escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Work resumed recently on putting a rooftop addition on the building, which would enlarge it a full story higher than its neighboring row houses, according to Fern Luskin and Julie Finch in the Historic Districts Council (HDC) Newsstand blog, which shows construction photos.

Those supporting protection of the row house are trying to get to the bottom of whether construction is proceeding illegally. But a New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) inspection concluded on the morning of May 11 that the owners are proceeding according to DOB-approved plans (see update below). This fight has been ongoing for several years, as neighbors, preservationists, and some public officials have sought and succeeded at times in halting renovation of the historic house.

Ironically, this renewed renovation work is happening at the same time that this row of houses, including the Hopper-Gibbons House, is nearing possible landmark designation. But this may make no difference. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering possible designation of the Hopper-Gibbons House and 11 of its neighboring mid-19th century row houses as the Lamartine Place Historic District (photo). The Greek Revival-style houses were built in 1847 on the northern side of West 29th Street, from Eighth to Ninth Avenue. The block was known then as Lamartine Place.

Too Late?

If designated, the row houses would then be accorded landmark protection. Any future construction would have to meet the city Landmarks Commission’s criteria – but it may be too late to stop this house’s alteration since it doesn’t affect already-issued building permits.

Given the public opposition and the city’s earlier citing of problems, the owner has dropped plans for a penthouse atop the structure and decreased the height but is continuing to build the addition of another floor (armed with a new building permit). Those opposing the renovation maintain its additional story still will make it too tall, in violation of local zoning, and will irrevocably alter this historic property. An effort to reach Tony Mamounas, the property owner and developer, was unsuccessful.

It’s not often the case that we know so much about the storied inhabitants of a single still-surviving mid-19th century row house in Manhattan – and about their courage and contributions to society. Yet the people who resided here chose to become involved in many of the important struggles of the 19th century. Abigail Hopper Gibbons, known as Abby, and her husband, James Sloan Gibbons, who lived at 339 W. 29th Street, were Quaker abolitionists who took incredible and harrowing risks to oppose slavery and aid runaway slaves. They sheltered a number of African-American slaves, making their home an Underground Railroad sanctuary for slaves escaping northward and to Canada.

As Luskin and Finch write in the HDC blog, Hopper Gibbons and her husband “were, in other words, the Schindlers of their day.” Hopper Gibbons’ father, Isaac Hopper, was very key in first organizing the system of hiding and helping fugitive slaves to escape.

During the Draft Riots of July 1863 in New York, an angry mob targeted the Gibbons’ home and, using torches, set fire to parts of it. Neighbors intervened, one armed with a pistol, to protect the Gibbons family from the threatening crowd. A friend, lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate, accompanied a number of family members over the rooftops to escape. Another neighbor, who sought to calm the crowds, was beaten. (To read one account of these events, check out excerpts from a letter of daughter Lucy Gibbons, posted on the Save Lamartine Blocks Web site. It’s excerpted from a biography of Abby Hopper Gibbons. A portion of a letter of Choate’s actually documented the use of the home as an Underground Railroad station. Choate recalled sharing a meal with the Gibbons and a fugitive slave in 1855.)

“One of the Most Remarkable Women”

Growing up in a Quaker family, Abby Hopper Gibbons devoted her life to social reform and service, especially on behalf of women, children, and infants. Trained as a nurse, she helped care for wounded Union soldiers and set up field hospitals during the Civil War. During the 1840s, her father, Isaac, and a group of women, including Abby, founded the Women’s Prison Association, in New York. This association, still in existence, lobbied for better conditions for women in jails and helped immigrant women who were homeless and often dealing with alcohol dependency.

In her late 80s and again in her early 90s, she traveled to Albany to lobby legislators on behalf of an ultimately successful bill setting up a reformatory for young women, before dying at the age of 91. The New York Times’ 1893 obituary of Hopper Gibbons called her “one of the most remarkable women of this century.”

The Hopper-Gibbons House and the adjacent row houses are located just several blocks from Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station in a fast-transforming area where North Chelsea meets Midtown. Much of the house’s history came to light because Luskin, a nearby neighbor and an art history professor at LaGuardia Community College, became upset when she saw construction beginning in 2007 to build the rooftop addition. Digging through archives and historical databases, she found out that the structure was a safe house for the Underground Railroad and was able to document it, according to a 2008 New York Times story about Luskin’s efforts.

Today she and others, as part of the Friends of Lamartine Place and Hopper-Gibbons House, have campaigned for the house and its neighboring row houses to be preserved much like were in the mid-19th century when runaway slaves found sanctuary here. Seeing the renovations continue to the house on Monday morning, she said, “The hardhats are here,” upset evident in her voice.

Not Giving Up

It’s ironic, too, that this priceless piece of history may be altered at exactly the time when the Historic Districts Council is honoring the Friends of Lamartine Place (as well as others) with a Grassroots Preservation Award. The award of the city-wide historic preservation group recognizes groups whose efforts contribute to New York’s quality of life. The HDC gave the award to the Friends of Lamartine Place last week.

Those fighting the rooftop addition, like Luskin, are continuing to enlist the aid of public officials such as New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who has strongly supported protection for the Hopper-Gibbons house and its neighboring structures. Asked what concerned citizens could do about the Hopper-Gibbons House, Simeon Bankoff, HDC executive director, said they should call Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office and urge a follow-up into the situation.

While disheartened at times, Luskin said that she, Finch, and others are pressing on, with the knowledge that the Hopper-Gibbons House is certainly one of a kind. The rooftop that the developer is altering is the very one that Gibbons family members used to escape a violent mob during the Draft Riots. To Luskin, such alterations are much more than a simple change to just another old house. “The addition,” she said, “is an affront to the building.”

Update: On May 12,  the New York City Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order, halting construction at 339 W. 29th St. An inspection revealed that the current work is inconsistent, i.e., it does not conform to the plans approved by the DOB. Those involved in the effort to protect the house were seeking to find out just what this stop-work order entails. The DOB intends to audit the owner’s renovation plans, according to a communication from a DOB official. plans to keep up on the situation at the Hopper-Gibbons House.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Zoe

    What a fascinating history. Can the Friends of Lamartine Place only prevent the addition from happening by pointing out the zoning violations? How much weight does the history of the building really carry with city officials? I’ve always been interested in what ends up preventing developments like this one — whether the public opposition is strong enough on its own, or whether it needs to be combined with zoning violations to prevent further development.

  • Susan DeMark


    Those are all excellent questions, and yes, it is quite a fascinating history. For instance, the Gibbons’ home was damaged in September, 1862, by people who didn’t approve of them celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission report. Can you imagine? Terrible.

    As of now, the Friends of Lamartine Place are seeking to stop the addition to this row house via the zoning-regulation route. One possible avenue they’re checking out: the sliver law, which limits towers on lots narrower than 45 feet.

    As to the building’s history, it carries a lot of weight when it comes to landmark designation, of course. But since the owner now has building permits, this may well trump any landmark designation that occurs afterward for Lamartine Place.

    As a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission told the Chelsea Now newspaper in a 2007 story when the opposition first arose: “The landmarks law said that if there is an existing permit for demolition work or other significant alterations, that permit supersedes subsequent landmark designation.”

    The residents were able to get the work halted for a time by insisting on a Department of Buildings audit, which subsequently led to the order to stop work. However, with the changes the owner recently made to the plans, the DOB apparently issued new permits. This is part of what the neighborhood activists are looking into, as Fern Luskin confirmed in an interview — to find out if the renewed work is legal.

    In certain circumstances, the city can also designate a building after the permits are issued, as Chelsea Now reported. But in the case of 339 West 29th Street, the neighborhood activists and preservationists have an uphill fight.

    Certainly, citizen involvement, especially folks adding their voices to those who have already been campaigning for this building, can’t hurt. That’s why the HDC executive director advised people to call the mayor’s office, register their concerns about what is happening to a documented Underground Railroad “safe house,” and request that the mayor get involved. Question is, is there a legal route to stop such work?

    I’ll keep my eye on the situation and report again on what happens with this property. It is somewhat hard to believe that an owner can simply alter a building that is very possibly about to obtain historical designation, but that’s the reality right now.

    Thanks for your comment!


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