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Underground Railroad House's History is Irrelevant, Owner Says

By Mathew Katz | March 28, 2013 7:50am

CHELSEA — The owner of a house that was once a stop along the Underground Railroad is suing the city to keep a fifth-floor penthouse that neighbors and preservationists say is illegal — claiming the building's historic significance is irrelevant.

The suit, filed in New York Supreme Court on March 18, seeks to overturn a February decision that put the Hopper-Gibbons House under the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which would likely order landlord Tony Mamounas to tear down a fifth-floor addition built between 2005 and 2010.

The city's Department of Buildings issued a permit for the addition at 339 W. 29th St. in 2005, though it now says it did so in error. Mamounas insists that most of the construction on the fifth floor happened in 2005, but opponents claim it was built in 2010, after the building was given landmarks protection.

"Since the issuance of a permit even one day prior to LPC designation would exclude a project from LPC jurisdiction, issuance of a permit of 1,500 days prior to designation, as occurred in the instant case, surely is accurate," wrote Mamounas' lawyer, Marvin Mitzner, in the suit.

"This historical significance of the Site is not at issue in this case," the suit continues.

The site once belonged to abolitionists Abigail and James Hopper Gibbons, who used the house's roof to escape an attack during the 1863 draft riots.

Opponents of the rooftop addition — including preservationists and several politicians — say the height of the building is paramount to its historical importance.

Since all of the buildings on the block are uniform, the Hopper Gibbons family was able to run across the roofs during their escape.

Fern Luskin, a professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College who's helped lead the charge to preserve the house, was surprised by the landlord's claim that "historical significance" of the building did not matter.

"We're not talking about the same building if it says that," Luskin said. "It's the only extant Underground Railroad station in Manhattan. How could they possibly say that history doesn't matter? That's ridiculous, insane and insulting, really."

Jack Lester, an attorney for Friends of the Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site, which Luskin co-chairs, said the group planned to intervene in the case.

"We want the historical interests of the building to be represented before the court," Lester said.

A spokeswoman for the city's Law Department said it was reviewing the suit, but believed the BSA had reached the correct decision.