With the recent decision to put the image of Harriet Tubman, who helped scores of enslaved African-Americans escape to freedom, on the $20 bill, we are focusing on a local mid-19th century building that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
That “stop” is the Hopper-Gibbons House at 339 West 29th St., which was once the home of Quaker abolitionists James Sloan Gibbons and his wife, Abigail (Abby) Hopper Gibbons.
This building is part of the Lamartine Place Historic District, a group of 12 mid-19th century row houses on the north side of West 29th Street between numbers 333 and 355. Lamartine Place, apparently named after the French writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine, was designated as such by developers William Torrey and Cyrus Mason, who wanted to distinguish their development from the numbered street grid.
The houses, all in Greek Revival style, were built in the late 1840s or early 1850s. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized Lamartine Place as a historic district in 2009.
In addition to providing shelter to runaway slaves seeking freedom, the house at 339 West 29th St. served as a center of abolitionist activity. Both William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator,” and John Brown, who later led an anti-slavery insurrection at Harpers Ferry, were guests at various times. When the Civil War began, James Sloan Gibbons wrote the patriotic poem “We Are Coming, Father Abraham (Three Hundred Thousand More),” which was put to music and became a popular song. Abby Gibbons worked as a nurse in hospitals serving the Union Army in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Back in New York, however, many working-class white men were angry about the draft, especially about the fact that wealthier men were able to buy their way out of being conscripted. Competition between black and white workers for low-wage jobs also fueled their resentment, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. Their anger exploded in the “Draft Riots” of July 1863, in which the mobs misguidedly targeted the city’s African-American population as objects of their wrath.
The Gibbons house, because the family were known as abolitionists, was attacked by vengeful mobs during the Draft Riots. Two of the Gibbons daughters escaped by climbing over the roofs to a neighboring house, where Mrs. Gibbons’ sister lived, and from there to a waiting carriage.
Today, both James Sloan Gibbons and Abby Gibbons are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. As for the house on West 29th Street, a historic marker was dedicated there in 2012.
The house recently became the object of controversy. In 2005, its owner, Tony Mamounas, received approval from the Buildings Department to build a penthouse addition. The permit was revoked in 2009, though, for failing to comply with the multiple dwelling law, according to a Buildings Department spokesman.
A few months later, Landmarks designated the entire group of houses as the Lamartine Place Historic District. A bureaucratic and legal tug-of-war followed, and preservationists also got involved, opposing the proposed addition. The Board of Standards and Appeals upheld the decision to revoke the permit, the Buildings spokesman said.
In February 2015, a panel of state appellate judges ruled to uphold the Board of Standards and Appeals’ 2013 decision.
Mamounas has submitted an application to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to modify the roof and rear additions, a commission spokesman said. A public hearing is scheduled for June 21.
A visit to the site in late April showed what apparently is the rooftop addition clad in protective construction material. The front of the house is covered by a sidewalk shed and black netting, and some of the windows are boarded up. The Buildings Department spokesman said there are two active permits at the site, one for a construction fence and the other for a sidewalk shed.
Whatever the future brings, the controversy has raised the house’s profile as a historic Chelsea link to the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the Draft Riots.