In the mid-19th century, runaway slaves found protection in an Underground Railroad “safe house” on West 29th Street in New York, as they fled northward to freedom. A century and a half later, a group of Bronx high school students plan to take a journey of their own in defense of this house.
The students, from Bronx Lab School, have been training to bike a 250-mile stretch of the Underground Railroad in Ohio this summer. But the cause of the Underground Railroad safe house is prompting them to do a bike trek far closer to home. On Friday, May 29, they plan to cycle from the Bronx to Manhattan, to the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 West 29th St. Nearby, they’ll participate in a morning teach-in about the house’s history and join a group of neighbors and preservationists who are seeking to halt and reverse a renovation project they maintain imperils the house’s history and architectural integrity.
Starting at 11 a.m. on Friday, the group – which is maintaining a blog called Save Abigail Hopper-Gibbons House – plans to conduct a teach-in and press briefing, alerting the public to the construction project that is heightening this row house at least a story higher than its neighboring dwellings. All of the houses were built in the late 1840s. Fern Luskin and Julie Finch, the event’s organizers, say that preservationists and political leaders will join them.
“The aim of this event is to alert people to the necessity of preserving this historic treasure from the disfiguring and illegal alterations that have been constructed there,” Luskin and Finch noted in an announcement.
The controversy over the house has been going on for several years. Since 2007, Luskin, Finch, and others have fought to stop the renovation. They maintain it damages the historical integrity of a place where Quaker abolitionists Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her husband, James Sloan Gibbons, provided safe passage to slaves before and during the Civil War and where Abigail Gibbons met with abolitionist John Brown. The home became a target of angry mobs during the Draft Riots of 1863.
They also claim the project violates New York City zoning laws and is counter to plans approved by the New York City Department of Buildings. The DOB issued a stop-work order on May 12, after an inspection found that construction didn’t conform to the approved plans. Meanwhile, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering the designation of this house and 11 of its neighboring mid-19th century row houses as the Lamartine Place Historic District (photo). (See “Sparks Over an Underground Railroad Site,” on Mindfulwalker.com, for a full account of the situation and the story of the house’s history.)
“Very Passionate About This History”
“This is part of our history, our city’s history, and our country’s history, and we should do what it takes to save it,” says Michele Hoang, a math teacher at Bronx Lab School who runs the after-school cycling program. Hoang is leading the students’ training and will accompany them on the Ohio bike trip to explore the Underground Railroad sites (see the group’s Web site).
Since the Bronx Lab students’ first bicycle trip in Ohio last summer, the group has wanted to be in contact with Luskin after learning about the Underground Railroad sanctuary house in Manhattan. Hoang and Luskin recently communicated and coordinated the students’ bike tour to visit the local site.
The students have an ambitious itinerary that goes many miles to travel back in time. They’ll bicycle from Bronx Lab to West 29th Street, a distance of 13-plus miles, to view the Hopper-Gibbons House. Then they will continue their trip to a building on 14th Street that Luskin has also documented as an Underground Railroad “safe house.” It’s where Abigail and James Gibbons had previously lived and also provided a safe space for slaves who were escaping. After visiting the historic places, the students will ride back to Bronx Lab, Hoang says.
“We’ve been reading about the Underground Railroad and about abolitionists….The students are excited that there are places they can visit here,” Hoang says. The group includes some students who made the bike trek in Ohio last year as well as some who will be going for the first time this year. Some have to miss Friday’s event due to graduation rehearsal. “They are very passionate about this history, and they are upset that they can’t come that day,” Hoang adds.
The Bronx Lab students will bike directly to the Underground Railroad “safe house” on West 29th Street and will participate in the nearby teach-in, learning more about the house’s history. This block of West 29th Street is a slice of the 19th century in the midst of Midtown Manhattan, an uncommonly quiet, peaceful place with the grassy courtyards of a major apartment complex, rather than buildings, across the street. The row houses are of varied colors and neatly kept, with tiny front areas full of plants and trees. It’s hard to believe that this is minutes from Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, and midtown’s intense noise and rush.
The row of mid-19th century houses maintains original Greek Revival touches, such as the buildings’ sills and stoops, though around the beginning of the 20th century, Renaissance Revival cornices were added, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. All of the row houses (except no. 355) are taller than they were at the time they were built, since their rooflines were raised during the 20th century to accommodate a full fourth story; they were originally three-and-a-half stories. However, they currently have uniform rooflines, while the Hopper-Gibbons house now stands out awkwardly, with its fifth-story-in-progress construction jutting above the others.
Efforts to obtain comment from the current owner of 339 W. 29th St., both directly and through a law firm reportedly representing the owner, have been unsuccessful.
If and when the row receives landmark designation, this action would mean any alterations would have to meet the LPC’s criteria. The LPC is reportedly expected to vote on designation this fall. But this action may come too late to affect current work at no. 339.
It’s a messy building site, and certainly no plaques announce its history. Still, there’s something moving in standing out in front of the house and thinking about how it once sheltered slaves who were escaping for their lives and for their freedom.
Luskin cites several reasons for opposing the renovation. “First of all, it’s aesthetic. This is a row of row houses, and they are contiguous and all of uniform height, and this will ‘uglify” the houses,” she says. “Then there is the history…it’s a hallowed place.”
Lastly, she considers what effect the local government’s decisions might have on future similar cases in New York if the city lets this alteration stand. “Why have a law if you’re not going to adhere to it?” Luskin says. “I want to protect the future of New York from this happening again.”