Print / View Finding Aid as Single Page

New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the Records of the
Friends of Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site
and Lamartine Place Historic District
 MS 3136

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Joseph Ditta

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on February 10, 2021
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical Note

Beginning in 1846 developers Cyrus Mason and William Torrey built a row of houses on the north side of West 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. The predominantly Greek Revival-style buildings faced a green space across the street, Lamartine Park, apparently named for Alphonse de Lamartine, who played a role in the French Revolution of 1848. To boost sales Mason and Torrey rechristened the block "Lamartine Place." (Similarly, West 28th Street became the more distinctive "Fitzroy Place.") The development attracted prominent residents, such as the philanthropists James Sloan Gibbons (1810–1892) and his wife, Abby (Hopper) Gibbons (1801–1893), who purchased No. 19 Lamartine Place in 1852. Noted abolitionists, the Gibbons family made their home a stop on the Underground Railroad, where they usually sheltered, fed, and supplied the needs of several escaping slaves at once. Notable visitors to the home included Horace Greeley, Lydia Maria Child, and William Lloyd Garrison.

The Gibbonses were staunch Republicans who supported the Civil War as an evil necessary to ending slavery. With the discovery that those who could afford a surrogate could buy their way out of conscription, violent mobs (probably organized by agitators) stormed New York on July 13–16, 1863, attacking known sites of abolitionist activity. Aware that their home was likely to be hit, Julia and Lucy Gibbons (daughters of James and Abby) carried some of their belongings over the rooftops to an uncle's house down the street. The mob came on July 14, chanting "Greeley! Gibbons! Greeley! Gibbons!" and looted the home, passing what they could through the windows, trampling what they could not. Forced by the militia to disperse, the rioters regrouped and set fire to 19 Lamartine Place. The house was damaged, but thankfully not destroyed. By then the Gibbons family was ensconced in their relative's home, but still at risk. A friend, finding them there, led them back over the rooftops toward Ninth Avenue and down to a carriage and safety.

Despite the burning of No. 19, Lamartine Place survived the New York City Draft Riots. The street name eventually reverted to West 29th. Its houses stood largely intact into the early 21st century, wearing the minor alterations common to 150-year-old rowhouses. One day in April 2007, Fern Luskin, a professor of art history at LaGuardia Community College and resident of the block, noticed a penthouse addition going up atop one of the houses. Distressed that its increased height would mar the uniform appearance of the row, she began to investigate the legality of the construction. In her research Luskin uncovered the by-then forgotten history of the development, how it had once been called Lamartine Place, and how it had once been home to the abolitionist Gibbons family. Remarkably, their house—now renumbered 339 West 29th Street—was the very one being disfigured by an addition that was erasing its roof and all trace of their Draft Riots escape.

The efforts of Luskin, fellow activist Julie M. Finch, and other concerned residents and elected officials, brought wide recognition to the Hopper Gibbons house as Manhattan's only extant, documented stop on the Underground Railroad. On October 13, 2009, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated 339 West 29th Street and its neighboring buildings the Lamartine Place Historic District. By law, buildings so designated cannot be demolished or altered without consent of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Despite this, the owner of 339 West 29th Street continued work on the rooftop alteration under expired and revoked permits, claiming (falsely) that construction had happened before the designation. After protracted legal actions, on May 18, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York City Department of Buildings ruled in favor of the Friends of Hopper Gibbons Underground Railroad Site and Lamartine Place Historic District (as Luskin, Finch, and their associates came to be called): they ordered the owner to remove the addition and restore the roofline to its historic height.

For a fuller history of the block and the work of Finch, Luskin, et al., see the Lamartine Place Historic District Designation Report, and Dusica Sue Malesevic, "Preservationists Win: Hopper-Gibbons House Owner Ordered to Subtract Addition" in  The Villager, May 24, 2017.