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Advocates 'Triumph' as City Vetoes Underground Railroad Home Roof Addition

 The Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
The Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

CHELSEA — The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has ruled “completely in favor” of advocates who’ve fought for years to see a controversial rooftop addition removed from a house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Preservationists declared a tentative victory in September after the LPC asked the owner of the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 W. 29th St. to eliminate a fifth-floor addition they say was built illegally after the home was landmarked as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District.

The owner, Tony Mamounas, had submitted plans to the commission that included revamping the building’s facade and altering the rooftop addition. Preservationists and elected officials characterized that as an attempt to get the commission to “retroactively approve his illegal rooftop addition.”

On Tuesday, representatives for Mamounas returned to the LPC with plans that still included the fifth-floor addition but contained modifications.

Regardless, the commission voted to deny the proposed addition.

“I think that the rooftop addition would be in fact inappropriate in the context of its cultural significance,” LPC commissioner Meenakshi Srinivasan said.

Preservationists have long touted the historical significance of the home’s original roof, as the abolitionists that owned the home escaped over it to avoid an angry mob during the 1863 Draft Riots.

The commission received a petition with nearly 500 signatures opposing Mamounas’s plans, Srinivasan noted.

Following the meeting, longtime Hopper-Gibbons House advocates said they were still processing the decision.

“I’m ecstatic, but I’m a little bit in shock,” Julie Finch told DNAinfo New York. “I haven’t absorbed it yet.”

Mamounas’s scaffold-covered rooftop addition has remained in place for years, despite rulings from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals and a state Supreme Court panel that found he should not have erected it without the LPC's permission.

“The ruling was completely in our favor,” preservationist and LaGuardia Community College professor Fern Luskin said. “I was stunned, because I thought it was going to go the other way.”

Now, advocates “just need the city to enforce the removal of the illegal fifth-story addition,” said Historic Districts Council executive director Simeon Bankoff.

The removal could happen within the next few months, as the city’s Department of Buildings issued an emergency declaration May 10 asking Mamounas to remove both the fifth-floor addition and a three-story rear addition within 60 days, a DOB spokesman said Wednesday.

The declaration came in response to “the discovery that [the owner’s previous] illegal work is compromising the building’s structure,” the spokesman said.

The city plans to hire a contractor to remove the additions if Mamounas doesn’t do so within 60 days — the bill for which Mamounas himself will have to foot, the spokesman noted. A lien will be placed on the building if he doesn't, he added.

The LPC did sign off at Tuesday's meeting on Mamounas's plans to build a rear-yard addition, and approved "with modifications" his plans to revamp the facade, a commission spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Mamounas's attorney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The ruling on the rooftop addition came as a rare victory for preservationists, Luskin noted.

“It’s very hard to pull this kind of thing off. When moneyed people, developers, have a will to build, they will build, no matter what," she said.

“That we were able to resist, because of the historical legacy of this building, is a triumph — it is a real triumph.”