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City Orders Illegal Penthouse Torn Down From Underground Railroad Building

By DNAinfo Staff on November 24, 2010 10:39am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — The Department of Buildings has ordered the developer at a Chelsea row house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad to tear down an illegal fifth floor.

The developer of 339 W. 29th Street, formerly the home of Quaker abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons, must demolish walls, ceilings and the rest of the partially-constructed penthouse within 14 days, DOB spokesperson Carly Sullivan confirmed Tuesday.

The order follows a recent investigation.

The building is very important to preservationists because when Civil War rioters targeted the Hopper Gibbons family, two daughters escaped from the mob by fleeing across the level roofs. All other row houses on the Chelsea block are just four floors high.

Last fall the Landmark Preservation Commission designated the block in a historic district.

Reached for comment before boarding a flight to Europe Tuesday, neighborhood activist Fern Luskin, who has made safeguarding the house and documenting its history her mission since 2007, said the DOB's move made her feel wonderful.

"Whoopee!" she said.

But Nick Mamounas, a contractor at the building who's named in news reports as the building's owner, said the DOB has been "very, very unfair" to him over the past four years. He claimed that his company, Tower Construction, is only performing safety work permitted by the DOB at an Oct. 13 meeting.

"Somebody has power at the Building's Department, and they're using that power to influence them," Mamounas said, before denying being the building's owner.

The New York City Department of Finance lists "North Fork Bank" and "339 W. 29 LLC" as the owners of the Hopper Gibbons building.

Luskin and another activist, Julie Finch, have been fighting the fifth-floor addition for the past four years.

Although Luskin and other advocates said they are celebrating the DOB's order, they fear that Mamounas will mount a legal challenge.

"The trick now is going to be making sure it sticks," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. "The owner has always resisted…It's going to take a lot of effort to make sure the law is enforced."

If the construction is not removed, penalties could include a criminal court summons, DOB spokeswoman Sullivan said.

Mamounas said he did not plan to make a legal challenge, but was undecided about his next move.

Regarding the historic legacy of the house, which was built in 1847, he said, "this has nothing to do with the construction, and I don't see the relation."

Because of the secretive nature of stops on the Underground Railroad, historical records document very few places in the five boroughs like the Hopper Gibbons House, Berman said. A few exist in Brooklyn, and rumors swirl around some homes in Greenwich Village with peculiar basement structures and tunnels.

In order to confirm the history of the Hopper Gibbons house, Luskin, who is a CUNY art and architecture historian, poured over records at the New York Historical Society and cross-referenced a map she found with the current New York City directory.

The story she uncovered, about a family that gave refuge to slaves as well as fighting for prison reform and welfare, affected her enough to propel her through the now four-year long fight.

"They were brave, and they were heroes," Luskin said of the Hopper Gibbons family. "We need to keep that legacy intact."