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Underground Railroad House Landlord to Face Off Against City in Court

By Mathew Katz | August 6, 2013 6:45am
 The fifth floor of the Hopper-Gibbons house has been in legal limbo for years.
The fifth floor of the Hopper-Gibbons house has been in legal limbo for years.
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DNAinfo/Tara Kyle

CHELSEA — The owner of a historic Chelsea row house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad will finally have his day in court.

The landlord, Tony Mamounas, will face off against the city in New York Supreme Court on Tuesday over what many say is an illegal fifth-floor addition to the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St.

The city's Board of Standards and Appeals ruled in February that the house is under the jurisdiction of Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is expected to decide that Mamounas has to remove the penthouse floor.

But Mamounas' lawyers will argue that the commission should not have any say over the rooftop addition, which Mamounas says he constructed legally.

"The Board of Standards and Appeals properly upheld the Department of Buildings' position that the building owner needs the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission before completing the enlargement," said a spokeswoman for the city's Law Department.

When exactly the rooftop addition was built is in dispute: Mamounas claims most of the work on it was done shortly after the Department of Buildings accidentally issued him a permit in 2005. Opponents claim it was built in 2010 — after the building had been landmarked.

"Even though the bulk of it was built a year after it was landmarked (as proven by time stamped photographs), he is trying to bypass the Landmarks Preservation Commission which he fears will require him to remove the addition," wrote Fern Luskin, co-chair of the Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and professor at LaGuardia Community College. 

Luskin is part of a diverse chorus of preservationists, politicians and locals who say the addition is not just damaging to the building's historical significance — it's also an eyesore. Her organization filed a brief in the case urging the judge to side with the city.

The house once belonged to abolitionists Abigail and James Hopper Gibbons. Preservationists argue that the house's roof has historical importance: During the 1863 draft riots, the Hopper Gibbons family escaped an attack by fleeing out onto the roof, which was level with the other houses on the block, allowing them to run to safety.

In his suit against the city, Mamounas' lawyer, Marvin Mitzner argued that because the Department of Buildings made the mistake by issuing the permit, his client shouldn't have to pay the price.

"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," Mitzner wrote.

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

Mitzner did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.