Chelsea History

The flat, densely populated area that is Chelsea today was once hilly forest and farmland, with high bluffs overlooking the Hudson. The river flowed near today's 10th Avenue and a small creek broke the shoreline at 22nd Street. Greenwich Village was a half-hour's bumpy stagecoach ride away.

In 1750 a retired British Army officer, Captain Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, bought nearly a hundred acres of this rural land. In memory of his service  in the British forces, he named his farm Chelsea, after the Royal Chelsea Hospital for veterans in London. His dwelling, Chelsea House, stood near the present corner 8tb Avenue (then Fitzroy Road) and 24th Street. In 1774 the house burned and Captain Clarke died soon after. His widow, Mary, built a new Chelsea House at what today would be lots 422 and 424 West 23rd Street. The house and some thirty acres of the estate were inherited by their daughter, Charity, the wife of Bishop Benjamin Moore of the Church of England, later the Episcopal Church, in New York. Their land extended approximately from the present 21st Street to 24th Street, from 8th Avenue to 10th Avenue. Later Bishop Moore purchased additional land to extend the estate to approximately 19th Street between the two avenues.

In Chelsea House, in 1779, Chelsea's most famous resident, Clement Clarke Moore, was born; and here, in 1822, Clement Moore first recited the poem he wrote for his children, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The poem is still known and loved throughout the country, but in Chelsea, Clement Moore is remembered for other accomplishments as well. He gave 60 lots of his land to the fledgling General Theological Seminary, where he was a distinguished professor of Oriental and Greek languages for many years. He also gave additional land for St. Peter's Church.

Urbanization overtook Chelsea in the early 19th century. In the name of progress Clement Moore saw his land divided into uniform house lots and his lovely rural acres leveled and the land pushed into the river to make more room for the expanding population pressing north from the city. His old homestead was destroyed with the hill on which it stood, and Moore moved to a new house nearby, where he lived until his death in 1863.

The red-brick row houses (now sometimes painted in other colors) with low stoops and front doorways framed by flat pilasters and entablatures (the Greek Revival style), found throughout Chelsea, were mostly built in the 1840s. Those with brownstone fronts, high stoops, and more elaborate doors and window enframements (the Italianate style) date from the 1850s. A row of these in the 400 block of 23rd Street have lost their stoops. A few houses with near-street-level doors, deep grooves in the first-floor brownstone, and arched doorways and windows (the Anglo-Italianate style) were also built in the 1850s. A half dozen houses in the 300 block of 22nd Street, including the four-part building with the Mansard roof, east of St. Paul's Church, were built in the 1870s.

In the mid-19th century the most popular of the city's shops and theaters were located near 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The Grand Opera House was on 23rd Street near 8th Avenue, and Madison Square Garden was still in Madison Square. Chelsea was a fashionable and exciting place to live. The renowned Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest, lived in the handsome mansion at 436 West 22nd Street, and other distinguished opera and stage stars lived nearby. But as the city moved north, Chelsea became the quiet residential community it is today.