The marring of a significant piece of abolitionist history in New York City is on its way to the pages architectural history. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied an application to set back the illegal fifth floor extant at the Hopper-Gibbons House in Chelsea.
The short story of the home at 339 West 29th Street – between Eighth and Ninth avenues – is this. It was built four stories tall between 1846 and 1847. It is Manhattan’s only surviving Underground Railroad stop. During the Draft Riots of 1863, its abolitionist occupants fled across the rooftops. In 2009, it fell under the LPC’s jurisdiction with the designation of the Lamartine Place Historic District.
Around that time, and in the face of the objection of several city agencies, a fifth floor was added by owner Tony Mamounas, and it has sat in a scaffold-clad state of disrepair until just recently. In September of 2016, he sought to legalize that (sort of). He dispatched land use attorney Marvin Mitzner and Dan Sehic of C3D Architecture to present a plan to set back the fifth floor (turning it into more of a traditional rooftop addition), conduct restoration work on the front façade, add to the rear façade, and have fire escapes on the front and rear facades.
The public and the commissioners were less than impressed with the proposal, to put it mildly, and ordered the applicant to modify the proposal. Mitzner and Sehic came back on Tuesday and with a plan for a sloped roof that would eliminate the visibility of the fifth floor, mean a hatch could be used for access instead of a bulkhead, and no railing would be required. They also proposed a plaque commemorating the events for which the house is notable.
Well, the commissioners would have none of it. LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said this is a “very unusual district” and all of the homes on the row have grown, having anything on the roof would be inappropriate. She said that proposed additions to the rear would be okay, as would the proposed front fire escape, but only if the latter is required by building code.
Commissioner Michael Goldblum agreed with her, saying, “The roof as an object is the artifact being preserved.” He also was troubled by the proposed treatment of the façade. He said if the owner put in fewer apartments, there would be no need for the front fire escape. He’s right. The escape is there because each floor has two apartments and each apartment in a combustible building needs to means of egress. He added, “I don’t know if thin brick is the way to go.”
Commissioner Michael Devonshire was on board with the bulk of his fellow commissioners’ remarks and added that he found the proposed fiberglass cornice inappropriate.
Tuesday’s session was a public meeting, not a public hearing, so no verbal testimony was permitted. However, Chair Srinivasan noted they had received messages from several elected officials, Manhattan Community Board 7, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Friends of Lamartine Place, and the Victorian Society, plus a petition with 498 signatures, and messages from 87 people. All were opposed to the proposal.
In the end, the commissioners voted to deny the rooftop addition, but voted to approve other work, with modification. The fourth floor windows and cornice will be made to align with those of the neighbors, the façade will not project from the neighbors, the windows will be one-over-one, and the fire escape will be eliminated if possible. The proposal was for 11 units, ranging from a studio to the two-bedroom on the fifth floor. Without the fifth floor unit, that brings the number down to 10. If five through-floor units were the plan, the fire escape would not be needed. The applicant will also work with LPC staff to refine other details.