Preservationists Fight for Restoration of Underground Railroad House

By Mathew Katz on November 20, 2012 5:40pm 

DOWNTOWN — Dozens of supporters of a historic house that served as a stop along the Underground Railroad turned out in full force Tuesday to make sure it is returned to its original state.

Earlier this year, the owner of the landmarked Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St., Tony Mamounas, filed an appeal of a city decision to force him to remove a fifth-floor addition to the four-story structure.

Appearing before the city's Board of Standards and Appeals on Tuesday, Mamounas' lawyer, Marvin Mitzner, argued that the original building permit for the addition — which city officials claimed was issued in error in 2005 — came before the structure was given landmark protection in 2010.

If the landlord's appeal is denied, he will likely be forced to remove the addition and will have to go before the Landmarks Preservation Commission to get permission for any other changes to the building.

"[Mamounas] acted in good faith, he obtained a permit, Buildings granted that permit. It’s not the owner who committed the error, it’s not the owner who tried to circumvent the law," Mitzner said.

"We believe the permit can be reinstated and we can continue work under the permit without the need to go to landmarks."

The cause of the Hopper-Gibbons house united politicians, preservationists, and even high school students, who said that the addition — which has plagued the house since 2005 — needed to go in order for it to keep its historic character.

"Visiting such historical landmarks is beneficial for the past and the future," said Diana Marino, a Bronx Lab High School student who cycled a 250-mile path tracing the routes of the underground railroad earlier this year.

"The Hopper Gibbons house is an important Underground Railroad site that needs to be protected so that every individual has the opportunity to learn about its history."

The building was home to Abigail and James Hopper Gibbons, abolitionists who helped ferry escaping slaves to Canada. The roof — still covered with years-old scaffolding and equipment — served as an escape route for the family when they came under siege during the Draft Riots in 1863.

On top of the historical concerns, several neighbors said the half-completed structure has become home to squatters and vagrants.

"They’ve also defecated and urinated in my client’s building and the site," said Joseph Brasile, an attorney representing a neighborhood building.

Department of Buildings officials issued several fines to Mamounas for violating stop-work orders on the building and elected officials accused him of continuing work on the extension despite orders to remove it.

"The bulk of the work was the subject of violations or was done while two stop-work orders were in effect or after permits had been revoked," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who was also speaking on behalf of State Senator Tom Duane, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

"There has been a pattern of misinformation, disdain for the law and disregard for the lawful orders of the DOB."

Board members were largely silent throughout the hour of testimony, where Mitzner was the only supporter of the appeal, though two said they were not persuaded by his arguments.

The board is set to make a final decision in the case on Jan. 15.

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