Friends of Hopper-Gibbons Win Decisive Court Victory

One step closer to four floors again? An Aug. 6 court victory by the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House has emboldened the movement to restore 339 W. 29th St. back to its pre-2005 condition.
One step closer to four floors again? An Aug. 6 court victory by the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House has emboldened the movement to restore 339 W. 29th St. back to its pre-2005 condition.

BY SEAN EGAN  |  While the road to justice has been anything but swift and easy, the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House have won a decisive victory in court — bringing them one step closer to restoring and preserving the Chelsea landmark for good. On Tuesday, August 6, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Eileen Rackower upheld the decision the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) reached earlier in the year, asserting that Tony Mamounas, current owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House, would indeed need to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) before continuing construction on the historic building. This decision comes after years of litigation and fighting to raise public awareness of, and support for, the Hopper-Gibbons House — the only documented and landmarked Underground Railroad site in Manhattan.

“I hope this serves as a deterrent for developers who would try to cheat, and cheat people out of their history, as this developer has done,” stated Fern Luskin, professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College, referencing Mamounas’ continued construction on the landmarked site. “The building is too important, and this is too important to happen again.”

Today, the Hopper-Gibbons house is covered in massive amounts of unsightly scaffolding — the remnants of haphazardly abandoned construction, which belies its storied history. The controversy surrounding the Hopper-Gibbons house started all the way in 2005, when owner Mamounas began to make significant changes to the residential building, including major interior renovations. The main source of trouble — Mamounas’ addition of a fifth floor (constructed for the purposes of a penthouse apartment) — caught the eyes (and the ire) of Luskin and Julie M. Finch, local residents and current co-chairs of the Friends of Hopper-Gibbons House. According Luskin, Finch and like-minded preservationists, this extra floor compromises the architectural and historic integrity of the building.

As a significant safe house for African-Americans and Abolitionists, the Hopper-Gibbons House (339 W. 29th Street) has a long and colorful history, which helps to shed some light onto what life was like in New York City during the Civil War era, and the racial tension that was present in the north. In the mid-1800s, the house was owned by Quaker abolitionists Abigail Hopper Gibbons and James Sloan Gibbons, who used their home to aid runaway southern slaves in their travels, and as a meeting place for other abolitionists.

In 1863, the Hopper-Gibbons House became directly entwined with a dark period in the city’s history. That July, the house came under siege during the racially charged Draft Riots, during which dozens of African Americans were lynched. An angry mob attacked the house of the noted abolitionists, setting it on fire. The Gibbons’ children escaped by running across the roofs of the houses next door — which were all four stories tall and flush with each other. With the roofline of these homes playing such a crucial part of the area’s history, the Friends of Hopper-Gibbons are understandably frustrated with the recent alterations to the most notable building of the block.

The LPC granted this group of houses, now known as the Lamartine Place Historic District, landmark status in 2009 — shortly after Mamounas’ permits for construction were revoked for being issued in error by the Department of Buildings (DOB), rather than the BSA. The advocacy of the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons house began to pay off, as the movement started gaining support from the public, as well as high profile figures such as Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and State Senator Brad Hoylman. While this turn of events would seem to protect the Hopper-Gibbons house from any further interference, construction continued to happen on the site. Despite cease work orders being issued, the fifth floor reportedly continued to be worked on.

The lawyers representing the city and defending the Hopper-Gibbons house were Jack L. Lester and Melanie V. Sadok. Lester used his opening argument to draw Judge Rackower’s attention to the building’s past, its close ties to the city’s abolitionist movement and its immense value to the community currently — aided by archival photos of the house in the 1800s placed alongside current images of the site provided by Luskin and Finch. He implored Rackower to uphold the BSA’s assessment that Mamounas needed to proceed through the LPC due to the Hopper-Gibbons house’s status as a historic landmark.

Mamounas’ lawyer, Marvin Mitzner approached the situation very differently. Mitzner believed that the problem rested with wrongly revoked permits and an unfair and flawed system that failed his client.

“The issue has nothing to do with landmark status,” Mitzner stated during his opening argument. Later, Mitzner presented a detailed argument, which attacked the issue from many angles. He insisted that the BSA was acting arbitrarily by not reinstating the permits revoked in 2009, which his client had acquired legally, and that the situation could easily be resolved if the board approved waivers he applied for. To back this claim up, he cited a case he had previously fought regarding property on East Sixth Street, when the BSA did in fact reinstate void DOB permits, in order to continue construction. Furthermore, Mitzner believed that since Mamounas did have permits, albeit void ones, he should not be subject to the LPC at all, because the law does not specify that the permits need to be valid.

Sadok attacked Mamounas and Mitzner for misrepresenting the facts of the case, and not fairly laying out the timeline of events. She took issue with the length of time it took Mitzner to apply for waivers and challenge decisions, saying it took them until four years after their permits were revoked to try to rectify the situation with the BSA. She also saw it as a clear-cut case of following the procedures laid out by the Landmarks Law.

Sadok claimed that the situation hinged on “a simple understanding and reading of the Landmarks Law,” and that Mitzner and his client “must go to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for approval.” Because the permits were revoked before the district was given landmark status, she asserted, Mamounas was subject to the Landmarks Law, and the LPC approval that goes with it.

Judge Rackower listened intently to both factions, and challenged them whenever necessary. She made sure Mitzner’s timeline and claims fully checked out when his details started sounding muddy. She also grilled Sadok about the apparent precedent established by the BSA in Mitzner’s East Sixth Street case, and why the Hopper-Gibbons house case was different (which they claimed the landmark status of the property altered the situation presented in the case).

In the end, Rackower asserted that the actions of the BSA were “not arbitrary,” and that Mamounas and Mitzner “need to address landmark status.” She found that Mamounas did not have valid permits — and in order to continue construction, he would need to go through the LPC first.

This decision is significant, because with the Hopper-Gibbons house’s landmark status, it is very unlikely that the LPC will grant Mamounas permission to continue to build in the manner which he has been. It is also very likely that the LPC would order the owner to completely remove the fifth floor from the building in order to restore the house to the way it looked (and functioned) during its historically significant period — the ultimate goal of the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons house. With the roofline re-established, the public could once again see the way the Gibbons made their daring escape.

Though Mitzner is expected to appeal Rackower’s ruling, Luskin is enjoying the win for now. “It’s a great victory for a landmarked building of great importance to the history of this city,” she said, continuing, “It was delightfully unexpected that it happened so fast. I am relishing the surprisingly swift rendering of justice that we witnessed!”