Saturday, January 8, 2011

Important article in the New York Times on Jan 5, 2011!

Important article in the New York Times on Jan 5, 2011!

Change to Civil War-Era Building DisputedBy ROBIN POGREBIN
Published: January 5, 2011

A building owner has ignored the city’s demands to dismantle a fifth story that was added to a landmark mid-19th-century row house in Chelsea that may be the only surviving documented Manhattan station on the Underground Railroad.

Abigail Hopper Gibbons, an abolitionist, lived in the house.
The owner, listed by the city as Tony Mamounas, had been ordered by the New York City Buildings Department to remove the addition by last month, but neighbors say that work instead has been proceeding on the property, once home to Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her husband, James, who were prominent New York City abolitionists.

“It’s just come to this desperate situation,” said Fern Luskin, an architectural historian who lives on the block and has taken up the cause of protecting the historic integrity of the building, a Greek Revival house at 339 West 29th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. “It’s like taking a serrated knife and lopping off our history,” she said of the addition. “It will permanently disfigure the evidence of what happened there.”

The owner is expected to appeal the order.

The Buildings Department initially allowed the addition in March 2005, and the owner later began construction. But officials revoked the permit in July 2009 after hearing complaints about the project, the city said, and after conducting an audit that found that the expansion did not meet state fire-safety codes.

Three months after the permit was revoked the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the building, along with others on the block, as part of the Lamartine Place Historic District, calling No. 339 “one of the very few extant sites to be associated with the pivotal events of those days.”

“Although the houses in the row have experienced alterations over time, this small group of houses continues to exist as the city changes around them,” the commission wrote in its designation report.

Work on the building was ordered stopped in July 2009, although last year the city agreed to let the owner address any emergency safety issues.

In November, after receiving complaints that construction on the building was continuing, the city ordered Mr. Mamounas to remove the additional floor by Dec. 7. A day before that deadline his lawyer, Marvin Mitzner, notified the city that he planned to ask its Board of Standards and Appeals to let him complete the addition, said Tony Sclafani, a Buildings Department spokesman.

A spokesman for the appeals board said it had not yet received such an appeal.

The city has a range of remedies to address illegal additions, including fines, orders to fix a condition and criminal court summonses.

It is somewhat unusual for a building permit to be revoked. But Mr. Sclafani said that when the permit was originally approved in 2005, the city allowed the owner to provide alternative fire-safety measures, like sprinklers and fire escapes, instead of the fireproof stairwell required by state law. In 2008, he said, the appeals board ruled that the city lacked the power to waive the fire-safety requirements, so the permit was revoked upon review by the auditors.

Mr. Sclafani said that while the additional floor had not been removed, inspectors on a recent visit found no evidence that construction to complete the additional story was moving forward.

“If any other work was performed that is not related to the emergency work that we’ve ordered, we will take the appropriate action,” Mr. Sclafani said.

Neighbors, however, said they believed the owners were proceeding with construction. “They’ve completed that illegal fifth story,” said Barbara Testi, who has lived in the building for 30 years. “It’s very frustrating. It shouldn’t even be there.”

Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, said the case warranted stronger enforcement action by the city.

“The issue is not only the destruction of a landmark and the desecration of a site on the Underground Railroad,” he said. “It’s an owner who is flagrantly violating local zoning and building codes and landmark restrictions. The buildings department really needs to ramp up its enforcement actions against him.”

Calls to Mr. Mamounas’s office seeking comment were not returned. Alvin H. Glick, chairman and a founder of the Mautner-Glick Corporation, said that he was the managing agent for the building, but that he did not know the status of the project.

The Gibbonses, abolitionists before the Civil War, used the house as a meeting place, where they helped escaping slaves en route to Canada. “They were like the Schindler of their day, taking such a chance, harboring slaves that were running for their lives,” said Ms. Luskin, referring to Oskar Schindler, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

In a letter cited by the landmarks commission in its designation report, Joseph Choate, a friend of the Gibbonses, wrote that he had dined with them along with William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, and a black man “on his way to freedom.” The Hopper Gibbons house was attacked and burned during the Draft Riots of 1863. Two of the Gibbonses’ daughters escaped the mob by climbing over adjacent roofs to a waiting carriage on Ninth Avenue, descending through the house at 355 West 29th Street, where Abigail Gibbons’s sister and her family lived.

Ms. Luskin, who with Julie Finch is a chairwoman of the Friends of the Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District, said that on an aesthetic level the building’s alterations disrupt the street’s uniform cornice line.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group, said the Hopper Gibbons house offered a valuable window into the role of Chelsea in the city’s abolitionist history. “You don’t necessarily think that this radical movement was going on amidst all this gentility,” he said.

The landmarks commission is optimistic the situation will be resolved. “We’re not so concerned if the top floor is removed within the next few weeks or months,” John Weiss, the commission’s deputy counsel, said. “We’re confident that, in the long run, the work that was not approved by the buildings department will be removed and the building will be the better for it.”

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