Miracles on 29th and 42nd Streets
Michael Hiller’s battles to preserve historic landmarks
Published in 2022 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
By Marisa Bowe on September 27, 2022
“I believe that life is relentless,” says Michael Hiller. “And I think we have to be vigilant and protect what’s important to us.”
Hiller has certainly been vigilant in protecting historic landmarks and the public’s right to public institutions. He’s even fought the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to make sure that they are, in fact, preserving landmarks.
“Twelve people have set foot on the moon,” Hiller says. “I think it’s seven or eight that have won cases against the Landmarks Preservation Commission. I won two.”
Beyond the lawsuits, he took on the LPC in a matter involving the Hopper-Gibbons House on West 29th Street, the last documented, intact stop on the Underground Railroad left in Manhattan. Originally owned by Quaker abolitionists, the building was purchased in 2004 by a developer who wanted to add a fifth floor and applied to make further alterations.
Despite having landmarked the building in 2009, Hiller remembers that the LPC had a public meeting “at which a majority of commissioners expressed tentative approval for the project. I was brought in to try to change the dynamic.”
But how to do that once the hearing process was over? He thought about writing letters to the commissioners, but he knew letters alone wouldn’t push it across the finish line. So he reached out to civil rights icon John Lewis, the U.S. representative to the 5th Congressional District of Georgia. Lewis’ office, however, was swamped with other civil rights issues and felt there wasn’t enough of a 5th District connection to get involved.
But Hiller didn’t give up. “In preservation,” he says, “you have to dig. You’re arguing from the perspective of history. And the only way you’re going to acquire the information from history is to dig for it.”
Hiller knew there was an archive for the Hopper-Gibbons House. “And I presumed that someone kept a ledger of who came through,” he says. “I thought there was a shot that there might be someone from Georgia, because after all, Georgia was a slaveholding state. So I dispatched a lawyer to [the archives in] Pennsylvania, and we were able to find two runaway freedom seekers who came from the area covered by the 5th District of Georgia.”
That changed everything. John Lewis’ office communicated with representatives from the Congressional Black Caucus, and, says Hiller, “The Congressional Black Caucus sent correspondence on our behalf. All of a sudden the state assembly, state senator, some counsel, everyone galvanized behind our cause. In the end, not only did we win in 2017, it was a unanimous rejection of the plan, and it never came back.”
The lesson about digging came in handy when he took on the lion-fronted New York Public Library on 42nd Street, too.
The library’s trustees planned to significantly alter the building, and begin, in their words, the “monetizing of non-core assets.” That meant demolishing the subterranean book storage areas—88 miles of stacks spread on seven floors—and moving the books to two New Jersey storage spaces. Members of the public were stunned, and prominent scholars, professors, and writers such as Pulitzer-Prize winner Edmund Morris banded together to fight it. Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times, warned that if the proposed changes went forward, it would be “considered one of the calamities of the city’s history, along with Penn Station.”
So there was a lot at stake.
Citizens Defending Libraries hired Hiller, “a pugnacious Manhattan lawyer,” as a 2015 book about the battle described him, and in July 2013 he filed a lawsuit against the NYPL in the New York State Supreme Court.
“There were several firms that turned it down,” he remembers. “We were told, ‘There’s no way you’re going to win.’”
At the time, Hiller admits, “I didn’t know anything about the history of the New York Public Library. I just thought it was a library. So we started to do the research. It’s actually an amalgamation of three trusts: the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Trusts. When we saw that there were three trusts, we knew there had to be some form of trust document, some kind of indenture.” So they dug some more. “We got copies of the 19th-century trust indentures which showed that the books could not be moved off-premises.” More, they discovered a 1978 agreement stating the library could not make changes to the structure “without prior approval of the New York State Parks department,” Hiller says.
The city agreed to withdraw its support for the plan. “It didn’t become this exalted reception hall for the wealthy, which is really what the city was trying to do,” says Hiller.
Hiller’s career was inspired, he says, by the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. At one point, Kris Kringle’s lawyer “talks about how being a lawyer is all about standing up for good people and supporting the causes that they believe in,” Hiller says. “And I thought to myself, ‘What a great thing to do: stand up for people being pushed around.’”
This includes museumgoers.
“I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Hiller says. “What a glorious testament to everything that is New York, right? But the institution has essentially tried to evolve into something that it was never planned to be. … Those who founded the museum said, ‘Let’s put this tremendous museum right at the foot of the most popular attraction in New York for the masses: Central Park.’ And people would walk in for free and be exposed to artwork as they were going through it.”
But gradually the Met began charging, and in 2011 it raised its suggested admission fee to $25. On their signs, the word suggested was tiny, and the admissions desk people made it seem like it was required.
That’s why, in 2013, Hiller and his then-law partner, in collaboration with the firm now called Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to “enjoin the MMA from continuing to deceive the public into paying a mandatory fee to enter the MMA.”
In their research, they found paperwork, the 1893 Act, in which MMA was permitted to “limit the free days and times to five days per week (including Sunday afternoons) plus two free evenings every week.” Hiller says this was because “the museum was given free rent on one of the most glorious blocks in New York City.”
The case was won by consent decree, Hiller adds, with Emery Celli leading the negotiations. The Met had to change its sign. For New Yorkers, and for students in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, “The amount you pay for tickets is up to you,” per the Met’s website. For all other adults, it’s $30.
For these achievements and others, Hiller was given the Historic Districts Council’s Grassroots Preservation Award in 2017.
But you can’t win ’em all. In 2018, Hiller took on the American Museum of Natural History, which sought to expand into Theodore Roosevelt Park. Despite strong local opposition, including from Billie Jean King (“I got to work with one of my childhood heroes,” Hiller says), the suit was dismissed a year later. Also in 2019, the New York Appeals Court overruled a victory he’d won against the Landmarks Commission to preserve the antique mechanisms of, and public access to, the gigantic clockworks in the Clock Tower Building.
But Hiller’s energy for this work remains unflagging. “It’s only by preserving and remembering our past,” he says, “that we can inform our present and become the best version of ourselves.”
Favorite NYC Landmark?
“The Hopper-Gibbons House is always going to be special to me because of its singular importance in American history, and in the history of the City of New York. The only other one that comes close to it is a scenic landmark: Central Park. It’s so important to me because it’s an enormous public space that has been preserved for the public to enjoy. I wouldn’t say it’s one of a kind; but for a city like ours, the size, it’s comes pretty close to one of a kind.” – Michael Hiller
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