Marker honors Manhattan’s only documented Underground Railroad station

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  A crowd of well-insulated locals, historic preservationists and elected officials — whose ranks far exceeded the number of degrees Fahrenheit — attended an outdoor ceremony on the afternoon of Sunday, January 15. Such events would normally be peppered with grumblings about having to “brave the cold” and complaints about the “bitter chill.” But more than one speaker alluded to how fortunate those in attendance were to be free, safe and generally comfortable — considering the dangers and indignities endured by those whom the gathering sought to honor.

The ceremony, held to officially landmark the Lamartine Place Historic District, bestowed some hard-won and long-sought respect upon a row of mid-19th century antebellum Greek Revival houses standing from 333 to 359 West 29th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

“For years, the community worked to designate this area as an historic district,” noted Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried. “The marker we’re unveiling today will remind all those who pass this way of this period’s importance in America’s fight for human rights.”

Gottfried’s observation resonated with the crowd, who were keenly aware that the timing of the ceremony was no accident. “On the day before Martin Luther King’s birthday, it is fitting that we are here,” said Julie Finch — a longtime preservationist and co-chair of Friends of Hopper Gibbons House. “This is a happy day, as we celebrate the spirit of survival of the freedom-seeking slaves of the 1840s and 50s who found shelter in this building, 339.”

“This is a great old story and a great new story of American brotherhood, compassion and fairness,” stated Christopher P. Moore — Historian and Curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Commissioner of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.  “Landmarking today on West 29th Street,  this community is restoring a neighborhood and memorializing great acts of courage. It is profoundly important for understanding the type of people that we were, and who we are today.”

Even in a city where so many buildings can legitimately claim historical significance, Lamartine Place is unique. The houses are associated with several prominent abolitionists families, and 339 West 29th is among the few documented surviving structures associated with the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. It is also the location of Manhattan’s only documented Underground Railroad station.

Friends of Hopper Gibbons House co-chair Fern Luskin — a professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College who discovered the history of the building — collaborated with Finch to achieve the block’s designation. Referring to 339 West 29 Street, Luskin noted, “It was at this site, now known as the Hopper Gibbons House, that the Quaker abolitionists James Sloan Gibbons and Abby Hopper Gibbons heroically provided shelter to African-American slaves running for their lives towards freedom in Canada, at a time when it was illegal to do so. The Gibbons family and African-American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who had stayed at the Gibbons home on 14th Street, were trailblazers.”

Luskin and Finch’s efforts began in 2007, when Luskin observed construction work being done on two of the historic building’s rooftops. They soon found themselves simultaneously assuming the duties of historians and preservationists — ultimately winning landmark status for Lamartine Place, but failing to prevent the contested addition of a fifth floor to the Hopper Gibbons House. Draped in construction materials, dissatisfaction with the building’s owner cast a pall over the celebratory event.

“We doubt that the owner will give permission to place it [the marker] on the building, so we will probably have to put it on a lamppost, ” speculated Finch in a Chelsea Now article published on January 12, 2011. Minutes before the marker was unveiled (unceremoniously affixed to a  pole, as predicted), Luskin made a heartfelt appeal. “It is time to honor these outspoken and courageous anti-slavery activists,” she said, “not only by unveiling this historic district sign, but by mandating the demolition of the illegal and hideously ugly fifth story addition to their home. By doing so, we would restore not only the architectural integrity of this block of four story row houses, but the rooftops over which the Gibbons family escaped to safety from the mob which was angry at their abolitionist stance.”

Gottfried noted that while he and others, “continue to work with the Department of Buildings to enforce the order for the owner of 339 West 29th Street to remove the illegal addition,” the installation of the marker was still a cause for celebration. “The long battle for recognition has been achieved,” said Mr. Gottfried.

Also among those in attendance: State Senator Tom Duane, Christina Davis (Chair of NY Landmarks Preservation Foundation), Ed Kirkland (of Community Board 4’s Landmarks Committee), Simeon Bankoff (Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council), Corey Johnson (Chair, Community Board 4) and Andrew Berman (Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation).

For more information, visit saveabolitionisthome339w29stnyc.blogspot.com.