On the Side of the Angels: An Activist’s Success Story

What does it take to preserve a precious, landmarked historical site for the ages? For the Hopper-Gibbons House, that would be five years; a pair of indefatigable leaders in Fern Luskin, a professor of art and architectural history at LaGuardia Community College, and Julie Finch, an actress, dancer, and pastry chef; a large and effective coalition of neighbors, activists, elected officials, historians, and preservationist groups; and Jack Lester, an attorney whose track record of success has caused a number of real estate titans to grind their teeth down to the pulp. This is how they did it.

The battle began in April 2007 when workmen started installing steel beams on the roof of a row house at 339 West 29th Street. Luskin, who lived a few doors down, suspected that something illegal was going on and started calling city agencies. This led to months of research into the building’s historical significance that culminated in an exciting discovery. (For the full story read “The Guest at the Dinner Table,” September 2012, at Her findings eventually resulted in a hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in January 2009. In the months following that first hearing, the owner, Tony Mamounas, escalated construction behind a scaffold and netting that concealed the entire façade of the building. Unknown to the Department of Buildings at the time, the plans were not just for a penthouse but an entire fifth story, complete with apartments, and a penthouse on top of that.

Something of a Mystery”

In response to the activists’ nonstop phone calls, the DOB finally investigated and issued a violation to Mamounas, which he ignored and construction continued. In May, the group held their first press conference and a strong statement by State Senator Richard Gottfried made the news, “The Department of Buildings is something of a mystery. Sometimes it seems to have a split personality, where part of the department will do the right thing…and then somehow soon after that the dark side of the department reemerges and someone reinstates the permit.” Before the month was out, the DOB issued a stop work order and when the owner ignored that, revoked his construction permit in July.

Another victory followed. In October 2009, the LPC awarded historic designation to the Lamartine Place row houses, citing the special significance of the Hopper-Gibbons House as the only intact site of an Underground Railroad depot in Manhattan. Preserving the roof was of particular significance because Gibbons family members and friends, well-known Quaker abolitionists, fled during the Draft Riots in 1863 over the rooftops to safety when a mob torched their house.

An Expert in Vertical Enlargements

The response to the designation from Mamounas’s architect was an arrogant dismissal. “Any history that was there is 100 percent gone. The work is permanent and we are moving forward.” As for Mamounas, the only value of a rooftop is to make money by building on top of it and to ensure this outcome, he retained Marvin Mitzner, an attorney whose specialty is convincing city agencies to “waive” their regulations on illegal penthouses or “vertical enlargements,” as they are euphemistically called in Multiple Dwelling Law. You see them all over Manhattan these days, 21st century additions perched atop 19th century dwellings with all the charm of a British Royal’s hat. There’s an army of Mamounases and Mitzners out there putting up and keeping up these vertical enlargements, and the method they use to circumvent regulations is remarkably similar – obfuscate, conceal, and ignore city orders to get the structure in place, and then wear down the opposition with delays when the city orders them to remove it.

That is exactly what went on for years at the Hopper-Gibbons House. “This fifth floor was secretly being built after the building was landmarked,” says Julie Finch, “hidden from DOB inspectors and auditors. Finally, in November, he failed his third audit and the DOB told him to tear it down.” Instead, the owner accelerated construction to beat the DOB’s deadline of December 7, 2010. Then, on December 6, Mitzner announced he was going to file with the Board of Standards and Appeals.

In addition to another mind-boggling delay, this was not good news for the Friends of Hopper-Gibbons. Securing a designation from the LPC was arduous but within the realm of humanity, where things like history, aesthetics, and architectural harmony could be discussed. Going before the BSA, on the other hand, was all about complex building regulations, Mitzner’s specialty. It was also where he had recently won several precedent-setting waivers in illegal penthouse cases. Confronting him in a BSA hearing was going to be brutal and the activists began yet another search, this time for the best lawyer they could afford.

“A Monument to Liberty”

In 1994, The New York Times interviewed attorney Jack Lester about what he calls the field of community law. “In this work you’re on the side of the angels, championing the right of people to have a say in things that affect the quality of their lives. There is a sense of frustration that people don’t have true local government, that all the power is concentrated in the mayor’s office and other centralized agencies.” He’s still at it and is best known for representing the residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village in a suit against Tishman Speyer and Black Rock Realty for illegally raising their rents. When the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tenants in 2009, advocates called it a huge victory for all tenants, with the potential of “allowing the city to be more economically diverse.” The Hopper-Gibbons case had another kind of potential, to give the BSA an opportunity to act as an honorable gatekeeper and custodian of the city’s heritage by setting a highly ethical precedent, particularly for landmarked buildings.

Dozens of supporters attended the three hearings that began in September 2012, including Carl Westmoreland, senior historian of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, who traveled to the November hearing from Cincinnati. One of the highlights was Fern Luskin’s spirited testimony in response to the owner’s claim that it would cost him $961,000 to demolish the fifth floor, which she called a grossly inflated figure for a self-created hardship. Describing the flimsy construction of the addition, she joked, “Julie and I will tear it down for free!”

On February 12, 2013, Lincoln’s birthday, the Board of Standards and Appeals voted unanimously that the Hopper-Gibbons House was under the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – a huge victory. “The BSA did the right thing and deserves praise,” says Lester. “We look forward to the hearings before the LPC to demonstrate the historical importance of the building as a monument to liberty.”

Leave a Reply