BOSSIP Exclusive: Judges Step In To Save Underground Railroad House

BOSSIP Exclusive: Judges Save NYC Underground Railroad House

- By Bossip Staff

Building Owner Sued To Keep Illegally Built Addition; Judges Struck Down Owner’s Appeal

A relic of New York City’s anti-slavery past has been saved.

A panel of appellate judges unanimously ruled Nick Mamounas, the owner of Manhattan’s only documented stop on the Underground Railroad, used an invalid permit to illegally build a fifth floor addition on top of the building.

“I think it speaks volumes about the monumental importance of this house, and this decision as a precedence,” Fern Luskin, professor of art and art history at LaGuardia Community College, and the co-chair of the Friends of the Hopper Gibbons House, told Bossip.

The four-story building was once home to the Hopper-Gibbons family; die-hard abolitionists who hosted well-known anti-slavery crusaders like Frederick Douglass and housed runaway slaves there.

An angry mob looted and torched the home during Manhattan’s Draft Riots of 1863, forcing the family to escape by fleeing over the building’s roof. That roof is now obscured by the illegal addition.
“When it was looted and burned, it still managed to stand tall, until Mamounas tarnished the original,” Luskin said. “Developers cannot do this. They cannot get away with this in a landmarked building of this significance.”

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission will now decide the fate of the Underground Railroad house, the judges Feb. 24 decision says.

Julie Finch, co-chair of the Friends of the Hopper-Gobbons House, said she hopes the building’s fifth floor addition will be torn down, and the building be restored as a memorial to the 11 to 30 African-American men who were lynched during the Draft Riots.
“It’s a great victory for preservationists, a great victory for abolitionists and for Black history,” Finch told Bossip.

In 2010, Mamounas built the fifth floor “penthouse” on top of the landmarked Chelsea rowhouse at 339 West 29th Street, and kept on building even after the city withdrew the building permit. Two years ago, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals decided that Mamounas had to get approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to keep the fifth floor. Mamounas appealed that decision, and both sides appeared in New York Appellate Court three weeks ago to prove their cases.

The judges decided that Mamounas should’ve appealed the city’s decision to revoke the permit, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have made a difference, because it wasn’t legit in the first place.
“We have considered the petitioners remaining contentions and we find them unavailing,” the appellate decision reads.

Photo Credit: Fern Luskin

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