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Developers of Underground Railroad Building Under Investigation

By DNAinfo Staff on November 19, 2010 3:55pm  | Updated on November 23, 2010 7:37pm

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — The Department of Buildings is investigating whether a developer is illegally continuing construction on a 150-year-old Chelsea row house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The probe follows complaints by neighbors about ongoing work on a fifth floor addition to 339 West 29th St., also known as the Hopper-Gibbons House, which makes it taller than the buildings next door. That's significant to preservationists because former residents fleeing Civil War riots used the level roofs to escape.

"It feels like they are slicing away a piece of history with a serrated knife," said neighbor Fern Luskin, a CUNY art and architecture historian who said she had in recent weeks she repeatedly witnessed construction on the partially-built fifth floor. "It's very angering that this owner has not the slightest care in the world."

The fight at 339 W. 29th St. began in 2007, when Luskin first witnessed someone trying to add a fifth floor to the four-story building. The battle seemingly ended last fall, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission created the Lamartine Place Historic District.

But now, the Department of Buildings is investigating whether the owners are performing illegal ongoing construction, DOB spokesperson Carly Sullivan confirmed Thursday.

On Oct. 13, the DOB gave owners Nick and Tony Mamounas permission to perform specific safety work on the site, including waterproofing the cellar and repairing floors in the stairwells. The DOB order posted at the site contains the underlined, handwritten message "No roof protection to be done! This work to be done only!"

But on Nov. 9, Luskin said she photographed men doing work atop the partial fifth floor. Luskin, who watches the site from her own roof a few doors down, said in recent weeks she has seen "major" ongoing work.

Calls to Tower Construction, the company owned by the Mamounas', were not returned nor were calls to the building's architect, John Hulme.

A new DOB notice, posted Nov. 18, gave the owners permission to take some safety measures on the roof and partial fifth floor — the installation of guardrails and sprinklers, stairs and handrails to the roof hatch.

The rooftop of the Hopper-Gibbons House holds a special relevance in the hearts of preservationists because of its role during the 1863 draft riots. That year, new laws drafting men into the Civil War led to riots.

Rioters targeted the building because of the efforts of owner Abigail Hopper Gibbons, a Quaker abolitionist, whose father was one of the founders of the Underground Railroad. His two daughters fled from the mob over the rooftops to the nearby home of their uncle.

Their escape was only possible because every rooftop on the block was the same height, Luskin said.

While preservationists would like the fifth floor demolished entirely, part of it was built before the creation of the Lamartine Place Historic District. If the early construction was carried out with a valid DOB permit, the half-built floor would not need to be torn down, according to a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

But fear the owners will complete the fifth floor is driving Luskin and fellow activist Julie Finch, a pastry chef who has a home on West 27th Street, to intervene. Finch, who learned about the Hopper Gibbons family while attending a Quaker meeting in 2008, said she now spends an hour or two every day working to halt construction.

Her efforts in recent weeks have included calls to State Sen. Tom Duane, Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the DOB.

"It's about the whole neighborhood, not just one building," Finch said.