Voices from the Neighborhood
Interviewed September 24, 2010, by Susan Hopper, HDC Board Member
How did you get involved in preservation? Julie Finch, the co-chair of our organization, the Friends of Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District, and I wanted to preserve the block on West 29th Street near Eighth Avenue. Julie had preservation experience from her successful effort to prevent the construction of the Westway, but I am an art historian and was not a preservationist until I noticed that the uniform line of cornices on the row of houses on my block, the 300 block of West 29th Street, was about to be disrupted by a disfiguring addition to one of these homes. I learned that my block was historic and was called Lamartine Place in the 19th century. Number 339, the house in question, had once been owned by two prominent Quaker abolitionists, Abigail Hopper Gibbons and James Sloan Gibbons, and later, I found that it had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad! Such documentation is extremely rare given the fact that the harboring of slaves was illegal and had to be kept secret until President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Julie Finch, the co-chair of our organization, the Friends of Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District, and I wanted to preserve the block. Julie had preservation experience from her successful effort to prevent the construction of the Westway. The first steps were to contact the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Department of Buildings, Amanda Burden, director of City Planning, and Community Board 4. I also set up a block organization, held meetings in the front garden, and we sent petitions to the Mayor and LPC. I first heard of HDC from urban planner Laurence Frommer about three and a half years ago.
How has the Historic Districts Council helped? I remember on one of the many occasions when the DOB renewed the permits allowing #339 to be altered, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of HDC, called right back and gave me good advice about approaching the media. Because the owner of the building was deceitful and tried to trick DOB, Julie and I also needed help with the developer’s architectural plan. Leo Blackman, an architect and an HDC board president, volunteered to look at the plans with us at State Senator Tom Duane’s office. Leo was subsequently incredibly helpful once again when Assemblyman Richard Gottfried needed expert information on some laws and violations. He immediately emailed Julie and me an explanation of the intricacies of these laws and their implications for the Hopper-Gibbons house. In 2009, our group won HDC’s Grassroots Preservation Award. Nevertheless, in the days immediately preceding the award ceremony, there was a new flurry of building activity on the roof of the house. The owner had received a new permit, and we realized that all hope was lost unless we had a press conference, which Assemblyman Gottfried was helpful in putting together. Simeon, one of the speakers, was terrific and well spoken, speaking from the heart without notes. He got to the core issues as to why the building needed to be saved, standing right opposite the house. He offered whatever help he could and later gave testimony at LPC hearings and the City Council meeting. He was very eloquent, did a perfect job. The Council voted in favor. In 2009, LPC created an historic district half a block long, from 333 to 355, based on the historic importance of a block that had survived the New York City Draft riots relatively intact. HDC was always there to help us!
Where are you now with preservation and historic districting? After designation, Julie and I immediately sent a letter to director/chair of the LPC imploring them to ensure that the owner of No. 339 adhere to zoning laws and rules. The house is deteriorating and the illegal top story is still intact, no roof, just tarpaper, no windows on upper floors, just Tyvek paper. But now we don’t have to worry about any of the other owners raising their buildings and ruining the uniform cornice line of these buildings. When I sit outside, not only do people come by to thank Julie and me, some have even come from other parts of town to see the Underground Railroad station because they saw it in the news or in Assembly Gottfried’s newsletter.
Advice for others interested in an historic district? Use HDC as a resource because they know what they are doing and can offer advice how to go about creating a district from every front, architectural, political, LPC, and the media. I had floundered prior to my involvement with this invaluable organization.
Updates: As of fall 2011, the NYC Buildings Department’s Stop Work Order on #339 West 29th Street remains in place, as does the scaffolding. To read more about creating the historic district and the fight to preserve the architectural integrity of the Hopper-Gibbons house, see: http://www.mindfulwalker.com/explore-new-york/lamartine-place-saved-for-posterity#comments and “Change to Civil War-Era Building Disputed,” New York Times, Jan. 5, 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/arts/design/06saved.html?pagewanted=all ).