NYC Underground Railroad site caught up in a legal fisticuffs
By Aaron D. Johnson
The Underground Railroad was a series routes and safe houses that assisted enslaved African Americans in escaping slavery to Free states or to Canada. In the 19th century, enslaved Africans, abolitionists, and sympathizers to the cause of Black freedom created an escape network that was neither underground nor railroad. It was called underground to underscore the secret nature of the operation. Railroad was used in order to utilize rail terminology.
Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups. Secrecy was important and this helped to maintain it. Individuals knew some connecting “stations” along the route but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one station to the next. “Conductors” on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, and some Native Americans.
There were many Underground Railroad stops in New York State but only two in the city. One of them is located at a building at 339 W. 29 St., once owned by the abolitionists Abby Hopper and James Sloan Gibbons. It was among 12 row houses designated by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a historic district in October 2009. With this designation, no changes to the building’s exterior can be made without approval.
The building has been modified since the days of the ‘Railroad’s” existence. It now stands as a 10 unit apartment building. The current owner who bought the property in 2004 has made renovations and an addition. According to the owner Tony Mamounas, the permission to make renovations was granted before the property was deemed a historic landmark. He sued the city to be allowed to finish renovations and to get renters into the property.
A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled against Mamounas stating that he could not rent out apartments unless he gets approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission for the addition. Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Mamounas must first apply for the addition and the commission will decide whether it’s consistent with the rest of the district.
` These row houses served as an escape route for Gibbons’ daughters during the Civil War draft riots of 1850. Many people in the North blamed Blacks, abolitionists, and other sympathizers for the Civil War. People were angry and believed that they had been drafted into a b****y war for cause of Black freedom. They sought to take it out on the people they perceived were responsible.
`Adding onto the exterior will obstruct people’s ability to experience the historical significance that the building represents.
“If this fifth story remains, it obliterates their escape route, and future generations cannot envision easily how that escape took place,” said Fern Luskin, a professor of architectural history at LaGuardia Community College. “It is the legacy of this very important family, such a prominent Quaker abolitionist family, well known for their views, and that is why this house was attacked.”