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Landlord Wants to Keep 'Illegal' Fifth Floor on Underground Railroad House

By Mathew Katz | November 15, 2012 4:00pm

CHELSEA — The owner of a historic brownstone that served as a stop along the Underground Railroad has appealed the city's order to remove an illegally-constructed fifth floor, setting the stage for a showdown between the landlord and preservationists next week.

The owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House, Tony Mamounas, filed an application with the city's Board of Standards and Appeals to overturn earlier rulings forcing him to remove the rooftop addition, which has been in the works since 2005.

Opponents of the addition said it was completed after the building was landmarked in February 2010. The city agreed, ordering Mamounas to remove the addition in November of that year, saying he was never given proper permission by the city to build it.

The BSA is set to take up the case at its meeting on Tuesday at 10 a.m.

More than 150 years old, the house at 339 W. 29th St. was once home to Abigal and James Hopper Gibbons, a family of New York City abolitionists, and is the only documented stop on the Underground Railroad still standing in Manhattan.

According to Fern Luskin, co-chair of the Friends of the Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site, the rooftop addition destroys much of the building's historical significance. During the Draft Riots in 1863, the family fled angry rioters via its roof, running along the uniform rooftops of neighboring buildings. Each home on the block is four-stories high.

"It's a historical reason to protect it, because it's so rare to have a documented Underground Railroad station to begin with," Luskin said.

"But the fifth floor when all the other buildings are four floors, it's just a terrible aesthetic discordance and disruption, it sticks out like a sore thumb."

In January, the surrounding buildings were given added protection as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District.

Luskin said the fifth floor addition has been converted into apartments. A ccording to Department of Buildings records, Mamounas racked up $10,000 worth of fines for violating a stop work order on the building since it was landmarked.

A lawyer representing Mamounas, Marvin Mitzner, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.