Landmarks Denies Plan to Reinstate Pre-Designation Building Permit for Rooftop Addition

Previous and modified proposals for 339 West 29th Street. Image credit: LPC

Despite reductions in addition’s scale and visibility, and promises to install a diorama commemorating escape of abolitionists from Draft Riots mob, Commissioners determined that any rooftop interventions were inappropriate. At its meeting on May 23, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission disposed of an application for facade alterations and rear and roof additions to 339 West 29th Street in the Lamartine Place Historic District. In the 19th century, the building was home to prominent abolitionists Abigail and James Sloan Gibbons, and is the only documented stop on the Underground Railroad in New York City. During the Draft Riots that engulfed the City in 1863, a mob attacked and set fire to the building, and the occupants escaped via rooftops to a nearby relative’s home.

The site has a tortured legal history. The owner received permits for the enlargement of the third and fourth stories, and the construction of a two-story rooftop addition, in 2005. The permitted work entailed multiple waivers to the multiple dwelling law. After work had been commenced, Buildings revoked the permit, based on Buildings’ lack of authority to waive the MDL, and the owner’s failure to correct the MDL violations. After a series of reinstatements and rescissions, Buildings issued a final revocation in December of 2010, after Landmarks designated Lamartine Place a historic district in 2009.

When the owners sought the reinstatement of the permit, Buildings determined that they must now obtain approval from Landmarks before receiving a permit from Buildings. The Board of Standards and Appeals and the State court system upheld the determination. The building is currently covered with scaffolding and safety netting with a partially constructed roof addition.

At a September 20th hearing, Attorney Marvin Mitzner and architect Damir Dan Sehic, of C3D Architecture, presented the application. Sehic said the building’s original cornice, stoop, and windows had been removed or altered over time, and the front facade replaced with stucco. Mitzner said the roof had been raised over time, as had most of the others in the district, and was not the same roof traversed by the Sloan Gibbons family. The applicants presented a modified plan for a set-back fifth story addition, one story lower than the enlargements originally sought from Buildings, with rear enlargements, a new brick facade, and a front fire escape. The addition would be partially visible from some public thoroughfares and from a park to the south, though the addition’s front facade would be slanted to minimize visibility. The front facade would be clad in brick, bringing it into line with the other masonry facades of the district.

Mitzner stated that the owners could legally revert the building back to its 2005 condition if not granted the certificate of appropriateness, with its non-historic stucco facade.

The application was resolutely opposed by elected officials, the local Community Board, neighborhood associations, and preservationists. Assembly Member Richard Gottfried demanded that Landmarks “not allow the owner to exploit illegal work that would destroy this landmark.” Speakers asked that Landmarks prevent any vertical additions to the building, and order the owners to restore the facade.

Landmarks counsel Mark Silberman advised that the Commission had the authority to mandate the removal of work at the fifth floor, but that the stuccoing of the facade appeared to have been done under a legal permit prior to designation.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said the district was largely designated for its cultural and historic significance, and the building’s roofline possessed an overlay of cultural significance that gave her “great pause” in allowing a rooftop addition. Other Commissioners concurred, with Michael Goldblum saying that the roof’s significance as the scene of a “historic tableau” precluded the Commission’s usual considerations about visibility. Chair Srinivasan did not call a vote, allowing the applicants the opportunity to modify the proposal, but warned that any rooftop additions were probably a “no-go.”

Current condition of 339 West 29th Street. Image credit: LPC

Mitzner again represented the applicants at the May meeting, and stated that the cultural significance of the site had been considered in revising the application. The applicants proposed to build a rooftop addition set further back, with a profile that would not be visible to pedestrians from any vantage. Mitzner reiterated that the rooflines of all the buildings in the district had been raised since the time of Draft Riots, and bore little relation to the rooftops at the time of the dramatic escape. He said that as the alterations and accretions to the buildings did not negate their historic value and worthiness for landmark designation, neither would the proposed invisible addition detract from the site’s significance.

He said the owners would install a plaque commemorating the site’s historic significance in consultation with Landmarks, and build a diorama depicting the occupants’ escape from the mob, in “a true cultural representation” of the site’s meaning.

Sehic presented the revised design for the rooftop addition, which would be set back 16 feet from the front facade, with a front wall sloped 20 degrees. The revised plan possessed no roof railing and a stair bulkhead would be replaced with a hatch. Sightline studies demonstrated that the addition would not be visible to pedestrians from nearby streets or from a park to the south. The addition would house a residential penthouse. The facade would be re-clad in brick veneer, lintels and sills reinstated, and a cornice restored in fiberglass.

Chair Srinivasan stated that the Commission had received many letters in opposition, from elected officials, preservationists, community associations and from individuals. Landmarks had also received a petition with 498 signatures opposing the plan.

Srinivasan commented that Lamartine Place was “a very unusual district,” where different standards than in other districts applied due to its unique cultural overlay. She said that even though the rooflines had been altered since the 19th century, they had been altered similarly, and maintained the relationship between the buildings of the block, which “kept that aspect of its historical events alive.” She said that despite the lack of visibility, a rooftop addition was inappropriate for the building. She said the rear enlargements and work to the front facade was generally appropriate.

Commissioner Michael Goldblum agreed, calling the roof a cultural artifact meritorious of protection. He further questioned the use of brick veneer, and the necessity of the fire escape, the need for which he said was self-imposed due to the configuration of apartments. Commissioner Michael Devonshire said that the cornice should be recreated in a material other than fiberglass.

The Commission voted to approve the application in part, permitting the enlargements on the rear, and the recladding of the facade with modifications, but denying the approval of the proposed rooftop additions. The permit recommended that the fire escape be removed unless required for egress by code, that the windows be changed to a one-over-one configuration, and that the architect work with Landmarks staff on the details of the veneer and cornice.

LPC: 339 West 23rd Street, Manhattan ((LPC-16-4417) (May 23, 2017) (Architects: C3d Architecture).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).

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