Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The James and Abby Gibbons House -- No. 339 W. 29th St.

Sheathed in netting and scaffolding for three years in 2013, one of Manhattan's most important sites in Black History is neglected and deteriorating.
As the 18th century turned into the 19th, the bucolic landscape above 14th Street was still dotted with the country estates of New York’s gentry.  It was a noble lifestyle that would not last much longer. In 1811 the Commissioners’ Plan divided the upper portion of the island into a regimented grid plan of avenues and streets that would end forever the era of Manhattan’s rural mansions.

Cornelius Ray was a latecomer, purchasing land just to the north of Clement Clarke Moore’s family estate, Chelsea, early in the early years of the 1800s.  His property stretched from the Hudson River to what is approximately now Eighth Avenue, from about 27th Street to 30th Street.  By the time he died in 1827, construction had already begun along Eighth Avenue to the south.  Five years later his children began dividing the estate into building lots.

Among the developers who would change the face of the Chelsea neighborhood were Cyrus Mason and William Torrey.   Most notably they constructed the elegant upscale London Terrace on West 23rd Street in 1845—a block-long row of homes set back from the street by green lawns.  A two-story colonnade ran the length of the row which pretended to be a single magnificent building.

A year after the completion of London Terrace, the men turned their attention to the block between 8th and 9th Avenues on 29th Street.  They purchased the northern blockfront from the Ray Estate and obtained the rights to the lots on the opposite side.  To make their tony new residences more marketable, a park was developed on the south side to increase sunlight, ventilation and attractive views.  They renamed the block Lamartine Place (the park was called Lamartine Park) to add to the exclusive tone.

Construction turned out to be a slow process. The final homes were not completed until 1852.  But the finished project was exactly what the developers intended:  a row of distinguished residences set behind small lawns with iron fences.  The three-story Greek Revival style homes drew upper middle-class buyers.

While Mason and Torrey were busy developing Chelsea, a Quaker couple was working with those in need.  James Sloan Gibbons had married Abigail Hopper in 1833 in Philadelphia.  Upon moving to New York two years later, Abby established a school for black children in her home while her husband, a banker, worked for the Bank of the State of New York.  Gibbons would later publish several books on banking.  But it was not banking for which he would be remembered.

The Quaker couple diligently worked for those in need.  In addition to the little school she ran from her home, she organized the German Industrial School to help homeless immigrant children, and the New York Infant Asylum for unwed mothers and orphans.  She made weekly visits to the Tombs prison downtown, concerned with the welfare of the children held here.   Lydia Maria Child in her “Letters from New York,” told of James Gibbons frequently visiting the squalid and dangerous Five Points neighborhood “with a basket containing food, medicine, clothing, etc., which he would distribute to the poor.”

In 1851 the Gibbons purchased No. 19 Lamartine Place.  Abby Gibbons outfitted the house with new purchases and then was concerned that her father, the social reformer Isaac Hopper, would disapprove of her over-spending.  She would later write to a friend that her father overlooked the stairway carpeting, but criticized the plush parlor rug as “extravagant.”

Isaac Hopper caught a cold in December of that year while traveling to visit a discharged prisoner.  A month later his condition had deteriorated and in March 1852 the Gibbons family took him into the Lamartine Place house to tend to him.  Despite the loving care, he died in the house in May of that year.

Abby continued her work with underprivileged children.  She was well-known for her Christmas dolls that were distributed to children in prisons and the Almshouse.   Two days before Christmas in 1856 The New York Times reported that “Once a year about forty ladies of this City, whose benevolence is directed by a correct appreciation of the desires of little folks, meet together and prepare for presentation to the children under the care of the Governors of the Almshouse, a large number of those child’s delights, know as doll-babies.”  The newspaper noted that “such a presentation has been made every Christmas day for a number of years” and the group of women had met the prior evening in the house of Abby Gibbons.

Here, the article said, “they dressed some six or seven hundred dolls, that otherwise would, in all probability, have remained stark naked during the most inclement season of the year.”  Abby and her group convinced local merchants to donate remnants of ribbons, material and “fancy goods” from which they made the doll clothes.

Like Isaac Hopper, the Gibbons were staunchly anti-slavery.   James Gibbons supported the Anti-Slavery Standard, an Abolitionist newspaper.  In a city whose merchants greatly supported the institution of slavery, the family daringly and rather openly made the house on Lamartine Place a stop in the Underground Railroad.  Slaves escaping to Canada were welcomed in the Gibbons home and given meals, shelter and whatever aid they needed.

Even among the Abolitionists, the Quaker family was unusually democratic in its racial views.  A letter written by Joseph Choate mentioned that “The house of Mrs. Gibbons was a great resort of abolitionists and extreme antislavery people from all parts of the land, as it was one of the stations of the Underground Railroad by which fugitive slaves found their way from the South to Canada.  I have dined with that family in company with William Lloyd Garrison, and sitting at the table with us was a jet-black negro who was on his way to freedom.”

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, James Gibbons “illuminated his house in honor of the proclamation,” according to the Friends’ Intelligencer.  The Gibbons daughters hung bunting from the upper windows.   It was a bold, in-your-face pronouncement of the Gibbons stance and it would have severe consequences.

On July 11, 1863 the nation’s first attempt at a military draft played out in New York with a lottery.  When the 1,200 chosen names were published, it was obvious that only the city’s poor and immigrant population was included—the wealthy had obviously bought or used their political power to circumvent the draft.  The result was the Draft Riots—a three-day reign of terror and carnage unlike anything seen in the country before.

Draft offices, newspaper buildings, black homes and neighborhoods were burned and looted.  The Colored Orphan Asylum was burned to the ground.  The black neighborhood on Thompson Street was a target and The New York Times reported on “a band of men and boys who were engaged in gathering straw, old barrels, and other combustible materials, for the purpose of kindling a fire among the tenement houses of the negroes.”

On the second day of the insurrection the mob moved towards the Gibbons house.  At 28th Street and Seventh Avenue they came upon a black man.  The Times reported that “he was attacked in the street, brutally beaten, his throat cut, and when entirely dead, his body was hung on the nearest lamp-post.  It remained suspended there for some hours, until finally a few policemen, who dared to brave the fury of the mob, cut it down and conveyed it to the Station-house.”

The rabble proceeded to No. 19 Lamartine Place.  Only James and two daughters, Julia and Lucy, were at home.   The girls hadalready begun to move belongings from their home across the roofs to their uncle’s nearby house.  They watched from an upstairs window of their relatives’ home as the crowd mobbed onto Lamartine Place, intent on their house.

The door to the Gibbons house was broken down and the rabble flooded in, ransacking the house.  Family friend Joseph Choate took his life into his hands by entering the house as one of the mob in search of the family.  When he found them in the nearby house, he got a carriage and had it wait around the corner.  He returned to take the girls across the rooftops to the house of Henry and Esther Herrman where they silently descended to the street.  The carriage took them to the safety of the Choate house on West 21st Street where they would stay for several days.

At 5:30 the police arrived.  Two months later David M. Barnes would record “A mob was sacking the residence of Mr. J. S. Gibbons, No. 19 Lamartine Place.  The force came upon the rioters, strewing the way with bodies as they went.  A large number of rioters and thieves were inside of the building, and while a portion of the command went in, others remained at the front, to receive with the locusts the villains driven out.”

At this point the military arrived and, confused by the tangle of police and rioters, fired recklessly and without orders into the crowd.  Barnes would report that they injured “more friends than foes.”  He told of one rioter who “came rushing from the house, laden with plunder, was caught by Sergeant Burdick and knocked own; he had not released his hold of the thief ere a score of bullets whistled around his head, two of them lodging in the body of his prisoner, and six of the police fell at the discharge.”

When the melee was over, the Broadway Square policemen returned to headquarters.  But the mob was not done with the Gibbons house yet.  They regrouped and returned, finishing their plunder and setting fire to the house.

Abby and her daughter Sarah rushed back to New York.  The family house was a smoldering ruin and the process of filing claims with the city began.  On July 24 The New York Times listed losses, including “from the dwelling of Mr. Gibbons, No. 19 Lamartine-place, a quantity of valuable household furniture, consisting in part of a marble-top table, a very superior clock, a mahogany dressing-case, a quantity of clothing, bedding &c., valued at over $800.”

The list in The Times would amount to about $12,000 today; but it was only a fraction of the loss which included the house itself.   James claimed $1600 in gas fixtures, alone.  Abby wrote of the cruel losses.  All of her father’s papers were destroyed, over 2,000 books were gone as was her father’s bookcase that had been in the family for over a century, his “pet piece of furniture.”

Although Abby wanted to move away from the blackened scar in the row of homes on Lamartine Place, James was defiantly set on rebuilding.  In addition to the $8,500 the family received in settlement from the city, $2,750 was donated by friends.

The blackened gash in the row of houses was filled with a new residence.  The memories of the terror of July 1863 were too much to bear, however, and one-by-one the Gibbons' neighbors and relatives left Lamartine Place.

In 1865 the house was put up for sale.  By 1868 Mary Compton, a teacher in the Boys’ Department of School No. 49 on East 37th Street was living here.  A year later Professor Adolph Werner of the College of the City of New York took up residence.  The German-born scholar would live here for four decades.

Werner had graduated from the College in 1857.  By now he was Professor of German—a position he would hold for over half a century.  Sometime prior to World War I he left the house—now numbered No. 339 West 29th Street—to live far uptown at No. 401 West End Avenue.

Throughout the 20th century the Gibbons house was used by a variety of tenants and uses.  In 1932 the Domster Realty Corporation had its offices here and in 1960 tenant Victor Santiago sold heroin from his apartment.   The pretty park laid out by Mason and Torrey over a century earlier became the cooperative housing project for members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

The rebuilt No. 339 (third from right) completed the earlier row of Greek Revival homes.  By the turn of the century all of them had risen to four stories -- photo NYPL Collection
In 1968 the house was converted to two apartments per floor; although little had changed outwardly from the 1864 building erected by the Gibbons.  Then came trouble.

In 2010 owners Tony and Nick Mamounas began an unauthorized fifth-floor penthouse addition.  The Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order and ordered the brothers to remove the partially-constructed addition.

Any hint of historic architectural detailing has been lost.
The men appealed and, while legal battles proceeded, Nick died, delaying the process.  Community advocates and historians were incensed.  One tenant called it “a tragedy” and told The Daily News “It’s a moral and historical landmark.  It should be a source of pride for the city and not just be allowed to be desecrated in this way.”

Historians were especially concerned about raising the roofline and interrupting the even flow of the buildings because it was across these roofs that the Gibbons sisters escaped in 1863.  Tony Mamounas and his lawyer maintain that appeals are forthcoming; but in the meantime orders to remove the addition go ignored and the historic building is neglected and in disrepair.  The Daily News called it on January 29, 2012, “a dilapidated eyesore.”

As the only certainly-documented stop in the Underground Railroad in New York City the property with its unequaled and poignant history deserves better treatment.

non-historic photographs taken by the author

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