Wednesday, December 29, 2010

More than a year after landmarking, the integrity of the Hopper Gibbons House is once again in peril.

Illegal construction continues at landmarked building
Published: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 3:54 PM CSTBY Bonnie Rosenstock

Despite countless Stop Work Orders issued by the New York City Department of Buildings, construction continues unabated at the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 West 29th Street. In defiance of D.O.B. Commissioner Robert LiMandri’s order to tear down the illegal fifth-story addition to the landmarked row house by December 7, work has proceeded at an alarming clip.

According to the November 23, 2010 Order to Correct (which set the December 7 deadline), the owner, Nick Mamounas of Tower Construction, “has been ordered to remove all additions, enlargements, structures or elements that are non-compliant with the last amended plans…audited and accepted on March 24, 2010…The only structure that will be permitted on the fourth floor is a stair bulkhead…required by Code, and mandated by D.O.B. for the safety of the remaining tenants in the building, and will be used only for egress purposes.”

On December 12, Fern Luskin and Julie Finch — co-chairs of Friends of Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District — emailed LiMandri (and other D.O.B. officials) to alert them of the continuing noncompliance. “Between November 23 and December 7, he [the owner] had completely sheathed the exterior of the fifth story in Tyvek to which he attached permanent aluminum posts and finished the plywood flooring on the interior,” they wrote. They also sent telling photographs of the work. They “implored” Manhattan Borough Commissioner Derek Lee, Deputy Borough Commissioner Bryan Winter and Leah Donaldson (liaison for Intergovernmental & Community Affairs) to join them and fellow preservationists and neighbors on Tuesday, December 14 for a rooftop inspection from a neighboring roof. “Once you see it from this perspective, it will become crystal clear that the owner has disobeyed the Borough Commissioner’s November 23 directive.”

They go on to say that “because the inspectors are ignoring the owner’s failure to comply…they are turning a blind eye to what is even blatantly clear even from the street,” they want the officials to see for themselves. An automated response from Lee stated that he is on Sick Leave, but the other two officials did not reply. Finch noted, however, that Donaldson came once a year ago to see the illegal work going on, “but nothing has changed,” she said.

Luskin’s campaign to preserve the house began almost four years ago. One fine spring day in April 2007 — while she was working on her laptop on her building’s roof — she noticed construction going on two rooftops over. She began sending letters to city officials. As an art and architecture historian (as well as CUNY professor), Luskin began using her skills to research the history of the house in order to strengthen the case for its preservation. While pouring over archives, she discovered that it was the home of Abigail Hopper-Gibbons and her husband, James Sloan Gibbons, noted Quaker abolitionists. During the 1850s and 60s, it was a documented safe house — an important link in the Underground Railroad. Abby’s father, Isaac Hopper, was instrumental in organizing the underground system whereby runaway Southern slaves were able to hide before escaping to Canada. The house was also a meeting place for other prominent abolitionists of the day.

During the 1863 Draft Riots, 30 African-Americans were lynched on the streets of New York — including one man on West 27th Street and Seventh Avenue. The Gibbons’ house was set ablaze and ransacked by an angry mob. Two of the Gibbons’ daughters fled over the rooftops to safety. In October 2009, through the efforts of Luskin and Finch — and the support of local preservationists, neighbors and state and city officials — the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a dozen mid-19th century four-story row houses as Lamartine Place Historic District. The district covers 333-355 West 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

“The Lamartine Place Historic District was created to commemorate the Draft Riots and their effect on the whole city, not only about white abolitionists escaping the mob,” said Finch, who partnered with Luskin when she learned about the house’s plight at a Friends meeting on E. 15th Street. For Finch, who is a Quaker, the significance of the Hopper-Gibbons building resonates. “They were Quakers fighting for justice. The house is a visual record of the riots and the family’s escape over the roof and the neighboring roof. Mamounas’ penthouse is built on top of that, which is why Fern and I are so stubborn.” However, Finch said that in the hopes of a compromise, they asked if the penthouse could be moved back five feet so the historic path could be kept — but their request was ignored.

The fifth story rises to a height of almost 64 feet. The 1847 building is supposed to measure only 52 feet, which maintains the uniform line of the cornices of the other four-story row houses on the west half of the block. According to the Sliver Law, which limits the height of buildings relative to their width, the maximum height allowed for this building would be 60 feet, which makes it a clear violation according to D.O.B.’s own audit on October 21, 2008.

Yet on December 8 of this year, a D.O.B. inspector reported, “No violation warranted for complaint at time of inspection” and “At time of inspection only remedial work at site as per partial rescind order.” On Friday, December 10, Luskin and Finch reported in that same email referenced above, that an inspector and engineer came again — but only to make sure the building was structurally safe. “They were supposed to have come to verify whether or not the owner had, in fact, torn down the fifth story (as Leah Donaldson had assured me they would on December 8),” they said.

Barbara Testi, one of the two remaining tenants at the Hopper-Gibbons House, corroborated that two inspectors came by “just to check on the structural integrity of the building,” she said. “They looked up at the building and told me that the illegal story was for another department.”

Testi, a rent-stabilized tenant, has lived in the ground-floor back basement apartment for 30 years. She declared that management, Mautner-Glick Corp. (1345 Third Avenue), has done everything to make their lives hell. “It’s been a horror for five years since the construction started.” She said that the people in the other eight apartments were forced out. “Some were subletting, so that was easy. A regular tenant went to court and lost his lease. Some left because they couldn’t take the inconvenience and harassment.” She related that when one of the tenants (a young woman in her 30’s) was taking a shower, some workmen walked into her apartment looking for a bathroom to use. “The workers had keys to the apartments. She moved shortly afterwards.”

The first few years of the construction work, there was no super. “The garbage stank and was full of maggots,” Testi recalled. “My ceilings have collapsed several times and a few weeks ago, they burst through my bedroom. My floors came up because the pipe underneath blew up, and there have been periods of no heat.” A few years ago, the bathroom slab of cement, which is roughly in the center of the building, had completely ruptured. “They said they moved something they shouldn’t have,” she reported. On December 16, when Testi came home from work at 7 p.m., she couldn’t open the front door to her apartment because something shifted and the door no longer fit the frame. “One worker stayed behind and forced it open with a crowbar and readjusted the lock plates. It was sagging about half an inch down.” She added, “They had plans to dig out the basement and make that a livable space, but thankfully, they didn’t do that. I am sure the whole building would have come down.”

Inspectors also came on Monday, December 13. Even though Stop Work Orders are visibly plastered all over the building’s front door and a wooden partition to the left of the building, “One inspector said the complaint was ‘unwarranted,’ ” said Luskin. “You can see the construction from the street. You would have to be blind.” On the same Monday at 6:09pm, an emergency response team assigned to the case, showed up. Luskin does not know if they reported anything, “but nothing [additional] has been put on the wall,” she noted.

On Wednesday, December 15, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of Historic Districts Council, emailed Donaldson inquiring about the status of the illegal penthouse and asked, “Is this a case for the marshals or the police?” A few minutes later, Donaldson replied, “The emergency work is separate from the order to remove the fifth floor…Please be advised that there have been, and will continue to be, many inspections to verify they are not working on completing the fifth floor.”

On December 17, Luskin emailed more photos to LiMandri, Lee and Donaldson, which show the workmen installing a new guardrail on the roof of the fifth story; the beginning of the partitioning of the corridor and apartment wall on the fifth story; installation of a new heating pipe (photo taken on December 12) and the near completion of two of those walls (taken on December 16). “[T]he number of each floor is clearly marked on the interior, so the only possible explanation for the inspectors turning a blind eye to the fifth-story addition is that they are taking bribes,” Luskin wrote.

“We are up against a brick wall,” said a frustrated Finch. “The owner is a scofflaw who cares nothing about history, let alone civil rights. But he’s going along with the system, and if N.Y.U. can rip down most of the Provincetown Playhouse even though they promised preservationists they wouldn’t…it’s the culture of arrogance in the D.O.B. Dysfunction and likely corruption is polite.”

On December 21, Chelsea Now telephoned Donaldson — but she referred the reporter to the press office. Press spokesperson Carly Sullivan reiterated that D.O.B. is only allowing safety work at the site. “The Stop Work Order was lifted for safety work,” she asserted. When Chelsea Now stated that work continues on construction of the fifth floor, Sullivan said she would get back to me after she “touched base with the inspectors” and would get a list of the work that has been allowed. Chelsea Now obtained photos taken on December 18 to email Sullivan that show the illegal almost-completed fifth floor and the two apartments.

The owner has failed three audits, noted Finch. “We have printed out every single piece of paper on the D.O.B. website — permits, certificates of occupancy, applications — and have a record of what was on it. In the process, we discovered really weird lies and errors, like ‘existing building is five stories’ when it’s four, so they have been deceptive the whole time. They took the roof off and tried to pretend it’s a duplex, but it’s really a fifth floor. All the buildings have been four stories for hundreds of years. This self-certification [in which the owners state their building’s elements] is a huge nightmare that doesn’t work.”

In an email statement to Chelsea Now on December 15, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said, “The city needs to step up to the plate and finally enforce the law against this owner who shows no sign of any interest in or willingness to obey the rules. D.O.B. and L.P.C. need to put some teeth in their decisions, and the two agencies need to coordinate their efforts and do their job. That this situation has gone on for this long is an embarrassment.”

On December 22, Lisi de Bourbon, L.P.C. spokesperson, stated to Chelsea Now by phone, “At this point, the L.P.C. is not involved in making sure that the owner complies with the order.” However, later that day Emily Rich, the public information officer, responded to Chelsea Now’s email to L.P.C.’s general counsel John Weiss, “Our staff is aware of the issues at this property and have been speaking with our General Counsel. At this point, I do not have any further updates, but were are looking into the issue.”

New York State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, whose office has been very active in the landmarking and preservation of the building, phoned on December 20 to express his concern. He said that the D.O.B. needs to “move more aggressively” and speed up their enforcement measures. “It’s a serious and persistent bad guy who has repeatedly ignored and violated city orders and regulations. I think very strong criminal and civil legal action is necessary here. It would have to be done by the Buildings Department. I and other elected officials have been talking to the D.O.B. about this — my office within the last couple of days — urging them to speed up their actions. It really is shocking the total lawlessness of the owner and stopping him and undoing the damage he has done is going to require some significantly stronger action from the Buildings Department.”

Lesley Doyel, co-president of Save Chelsea, stressed the urgency of the situation, “not only in terms of the integrity of the building and the row houses that comprise Lamartine Place, but also in terms of historic districts everywhere,” she stated. “If he is allowed to continue in defiance of D.O.B. and Landmarks, it will be bad for every historic district and landmarked building. I have been in close touch with Fern and Julie and many other organizations involved with preservation issues, and a lot of people are very concerned. It sets a dangerous precedence.”

Efforts to reach Mamounas via email and Alvin Glick, chairman/founder of Mautner-Glick Corp., and the architect John Hulme via phone proved fruitless. However, a July 30, 2009 Chelsea Now article quoted Hulme as declaring the proposed work “permanent,” “we are moving forward” and the owner “would attempt to finish construction as soon as possible.”

In addition to their tireless determination to save the historic building, Luskin and Finch — who have garnered awards from the periodical Underground Railroad Free Press and Historic Districts Council — are planning to raise money for a plaque to commemorate those tragic pre-Civil War events. “When the plaque goes up, I hope it will mention the lynchings that took place in the city. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fled the city because they were terrified of being killed,” Finch said.

She added, “We doubt that the owner will give permission to place it on the building, so we will probably have to put it on a lamppost.”

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