Voices

The Fight for the Hopper Gibbons House

In the summer of 2007 an article in The New York Times informed me that the only home of a White abolitionist in Manhattan in New York City that survived the 1863 Draft Riots was in the process of being altered beyond recognition.  The home, a townhouse located at 339 W. 29th St., is now owned by Tony Mamounas whose company was adding a fifth-floor penthouse to the four-story Hopper Gibbons house.  The Hopper Gibbons house is a 19th century rowhouse, a part of contiguous brick buildings that witnessed the Draft Riots, and was a victim of Irish arsonists who broke down the door at 339 W. 29th St., setting the house on fire gutting the interior.

The Hopper Gibbons house is an important physical element of the American Civil War that survived the July 1863 New York City Draft Riots, and is the only remaining building that was attacked because the then-owners were sheltering Blacks fleeing enslavement and was the site of meetings between Black and White abolition leaders.

The 1863 Draft Riots in New York City began as a violent protest by members of the Irish community against the implementation of the draft during the Civil war incited by Democrats who felt they were being drafted into a war that would free enslaved Black people who would then compete with them for jobs.  The Irish were also angry because middle and upper-class White New Yorkers were able to pay substitutes to take their places in the Union Army.  The anger vetted against the Black community in New York City was a violent replay of that of 1712 when enslaved Black New Yorkers were executed to suppress a slave revolt.  Starting July 13, 1863, the homes of Blacks were firebombed and the Negro orphanage that housed more than 200 children was burned.  Before the battle ended more than 200 people thought to be abolitionists were targeted, and many of their homes were burned.  The home of the Hopper Gibbons family who were abolitionists was singled out by the arsonists and on the second night of the riot (July 14, 1863) the Hopper Gibbons home was torched.  The occupants would not go through the front door to the outside in fear of being assaulted, or worse, killed.

James Sloan Gibbons and his daughter, Lucy Gibbons Morse, were in the house when the inferno began.  Abigail Hopper Gibbons was in the South with a Union Army regiment serving as a volunteer nurse.  Mr. Gibbons had developed an alternate plan of escape with the help of neighbors whose homes were attached to 3339 W. 29th St., and while the arsonists, the bad guys and the bullies stood on the street waiting to pounce on the abolitionists, James Gibbons, his daughter Lucy and others trapped in the melee, climbed up ladders through scuttles which opened on the roof, scampered across rooftop to another scuttle, climbed down another ladder into a hallway, and by exiting through the rear of the building Mr. Gibbons and his daughter escaped harm.

Fern Luskin, a professor of Art and Architecture, and Julie Finch, an actress, jointly worked to oppose the addition to the Hopper Gibbons house, and during their 10-year effort, they would attract a coalition that was multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, including people of a wide spread of incomes.  I called Fern Luskin, and began a 10-year process of exchanging emails, phone calls, site visits to 29th Street and consultation.  We were able to suggest that the neighborhood based organization that Fern Luskin and Julie Finch led develop working relationships with the African American community, and they secured the support of Jacob Morris of the Harlem Society.  In a July 2, 2012 Wall Street Journal article Mr. Morris identified 20 major Black historic sites that included the slave market at Wall Street, the site of the Colored Orphanage that burned in the Draft Riots, and the location of the home of David Ruggles, the Black abolitionist who sheltered Fredrick Douglas after he escaped enslavement in Baltimore.  

We were able to connect Ms. Luskin with what would become on the community’s most important allies, the Bronx Lab School’s Underground Railroad Bicycle Club, a group of students who visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2008.  At our suggestion, and with the cooperation of the administration of the Bronx Lab School who allowed Rachel Appel to accompany the students to a hearing of the Board of Standards and Appeals in Lower Manhattan.  At 10:00 a.m. November 20, 2012, it had been raining since the night before.  It was “wet dog weather” when a multi-racial parade of soaked students from the Bronx Lab School dismounted outside the building where the Board of Standards and Appeals would meet.  At 10:00 a.m., the wet sock caps, bandanas, scarves and poplin jackets had been removed.  Sport jackets, blazers and notebooks were extracted from backpacks, and the scholar members of the Bronx Lab School, under the watchful supportive gaze of their teacher, Rachel Apple, went to work.  The youthful students reminded the Board members and taught many in the audience of the ugly history of the Draft Riots, and the noble humanitarianism of the Hopper Gibbons family.  They noted that the family not only sheltered Black people in flight from slavery, they hosted Black abolition leaders in their home, meeting with them as peers.  From 339 W. 29th Street, a life mission dedicated to human rights would continue, directed toward serving women prisoners.  The young people reminded those at the hearing that the Hopper gibbons house was a node of humanitarian behavior and actions on the part of a small group of New Yorkers at a time when New York was considering leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy.

Mr. Mamounas, the owner/developer of 339 W. 29th St., would use every method available to him to use continuances and appealing to every possible venue, while at the same time proceeding with construction work on the building.  Weeks, months, years would pass.  New hearings would be scheduled.  Fern Luskin, Julie Finch and the neighborhood would scrape together funds to hire Jack Lester, an attorney who specializes in Community Law.  Mr. Lester successfully represented residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village against Black Rock Realty for illegally raising rents.

May 18, 2017 the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings of New York City ruled in favor of the neighbors of the Hopper Gibbons house who want it returned to its historic height.  The voices, the petitions of ordinary people and their children were heard.  There will be no celebration however, until the fifth floor of 339 W. 29th Street is removed, and the spirits of the Hopper Gibbons home are free to run unimpeded.

 

Carl B. Westmoreland

Historian

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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