New York Daily Photo Analytics

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Clement Clarke Moore

Chelsea is the former home of the man who brought Christmas to America with A Visit from St. Nicholas (also known as The Night Before Christmas and 'Twas the Night Before Christmas from the first line of the poem). This poem, first published anonymously in 1823, and now attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, is responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid 1800s to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his transportation by sleigh, the number and names of his reindeer and the tradition of bringing toys to children.

Clement Clarke Moore, a graduate and professor at Columbia College, inherited a large family owned estate which lay north of Houston Street. This area of the city was mostly undeveloped countryside at the time. Clement fought development of New York City as it moved north from lower Manhattan. The proposed street grid in the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 would run through the Moore estate. In 1818, the city's Common Council agreed to spare the area from Houston to 14th Street, west of Sixth Avenue. This is the reason that this neighborhood, the West Village, has such a quaint mélange of narrow streets with curves and oblique angles.

Moore did, however, begin to develop Chelsea, dividing it into lots and selling them to prosperous New Yorkers. An apple orchard was donated to the Episcopal Diocese, now home of the General Theological Seminary, which spans an entire city block and where Moore served as the first professor of Oriental Languages.

Regarding the name Chelsea, according to the New York Times, "It was Moore's grandfather Thomas Clarke, a retired British naval officer, who had bought an old farm in 1750 for his retirement and named it Chelsea after the Royal Chelsea Hospital for veterans in London."

Chelsea is largely a residential enclave with streets lined with historic townhouses. This neighborhood was the location of my first apartment in New York City - you can see it here. The western area of Chelsea, along 10th and 11th Avenues was industrial and in the 1990s, there was a migration of galleries and art studios from SoHo to this area, where there are now several hundred galleries.

Apart from the gallery district, Chelsea is not heavily touristed. However, there are numerous places of interest - the Chelsea Market, Chelsea Piers, the High Line Park, Hotel Chelsea, London Terrace, the Empire Diner, the IAC Building designed by Frank Gehry, the Rubin Museum of Art, the Joyce Theater, Dance Theater Workshop and the Kitchen.

In today's photo you can see a small group of historic buildings on Ninth Avenue. The corner property at 183 Ninth Avenue at 21st Street) is the Royer-Wells House, the second oldest house in Chelsea. This Federal-style home was completed in 1832.

I owe the charm of my first residence and my love of the West Village to Clement Clarke Moore :)


MattC said...

Brian, love your photos, blog and stories behind each photo. I grew up in Brooklyn and live in upstate NY, photos bring back many memories, but also so many things I never knew or took for granted way back then. Keep up the great work. Checking this stories and the links.... many people may not know the origin of "stoop". I always thought it to be unique to NYC.

Ken Mac said...

ninth at 21st. I am amazed I don't know this corner. Love that faded sign.

Jeni said...

I know this corner :)!! I used to work at 23rd between 10th & 11th, the 17th at 10th and now I'm in Union Square.
I love this history. A good friend of mine Luanne Rice is from this area too and she wrote about it in her book and movie "Silver Bells".

Love your history lessons!

Jack said...

A most interesting post, Brian. I knew of Moore as the writer of the famous Christmas poem, but I knew nothing about him or his impact on the geography of a special part of Manhattan.

Sue said...

Wow, Brian, just yesterday I was explaining to my husband and kids how the village was spared the grid system that most of Manhattan is built on! I didn't know the exact details, so thanks for that. Great bit of history.

Brian Dubé said...

MattC, Ken Mac, Jeni, Jack, Sue - thanks all. So surprising to get these comments. Typically, history and architecture stories never seemed to be those that were of great interest. Of course, this is part of the fabric of the city.

Leslie said...

This is so cool learning all this history! Chelsea is still one of the quaintest areas of Manhattan. I think it means so much more to me now than when I lived there. Jeez, Jim would have loved your blog...

Annie said...

Aha, very interesting. Especially since I gave a copy of the book to my little grandchild who resides in NYC at the moment, and read it to him every night before Christmas last year. My daughter also brought it out this year to read again. The story never grows old.

Although when she was talking about Christmas this coming year, to be celebrated in Australia, there would a tree, and lights and presents..."but no Santa" he chimes in. I think he is a bit young for a scary man in a red suit yet.

MMG said...

I enjoy coming to this site to see photos every day. This photo reminds me of the old days in New York back in the late 80s when things weren't too modern but were just becoming that way. Just a magical charm.

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

Fascinating as usual, Brian. I've never seen this side of Chelsea. On my admittedly limited visits, I've only known it as the rather ugly, vaguely industrial neighborhood that's home to the galleries and auto repair shops. Thanks for sharing its prettier side.

Anonymous said...

I have often wondered about these little buildings-thanks!

Alexander Scala said...

The New York Times has led you astray. Thomas Clarke, Clement Clarke Moore's grandfather, was not a "retired British naval officer." He was, in fact, the captain of a company of New York militia. The Times seems to have confused him with Sir Peter Warren, an Irish officer in the Royal Navy who married into New York's wealthy Delancey family and established Manhattan's first gentleman's country seat in what is now the West Village. Hence, no doubt, your (or the Times's) failure to identify correctly the size of Clement Clarke Moore's property -- although here you seem to have been misled in part by Wikipedia's entry for Moore. Moore's estate extended roughly from what is now West 19th Street to West 26th Street and from what is now 8th Avenue to the Hudson River -- which, when Captain Clarke bought the property in 1750, lapped the shore at about the line of 10th Avenue. In any case, no part of Moore's property was exempted from the rigors of the 1811 Commissioners' Plan; the grid was imposed, little by little, over the whole of it. (By the way, Moore did not end up with the whole of Captain Clarke's Chelsea estate: the northern part, from about 24th Street to about 28th Street, went to a cousin. Moore's father, Benjamin Moore, Bishop of New York, added the block between 19th and 20th streets.)

For a map showing Moore's holdings in 1819, see

The matter of Captain Clarke and his career is more complicated. The web merely repeats over and over again the error that he had been an officer in the British army. Here is a relevant paragraph from W.W. Abbot, ed.,
The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series; vol. 1: 1748-August 1755, page 149, footnote 2:

2. Thomas Clarke (Clark) was captain of one of the New York independent companies. Clarke was
commissioned captain sometime before 1745. In 1746
he was appointed major for the duration of the proposed attack on Canada and, after the abortive campaign, reverted to his original rank. Capt. John Rutherfurd (1712-1758) was captain of the other New York independent company but was in England in 1754. As a result Clarke was senior commanding
officer of both New York companies that arrived in Alexandria. He was
also one of the New York officers who signed a letter disclaiming responsibility for GW's defeat at Fort Necessity (Penuyluania Gazette[Philadelphia], 10 April 1755). In order to brevet Clarke, which conferred only temporary rank
and no increase in perquisites or pay, Dinwiddie had to give Clarke "my Como. . . . this Expedient was agreed to by Capt. Clark & wds the only Method
I cd think of to keep up Harmony amongst them" (Dinwiddie to Sharpe,
20 June 1754, ViHi: Dinwiddie Papers).

This paragraph explains why Captain Clarke sometimes turns up on line as "Major Clarke."

Alex Scala

Elisa said...

Hi Brian,
I´m very pleased making a tour on your blog in order to complete some plans for my travel to NYC.
I´ve never seen this building. It´s amazing
Elisa, from Argentina

Citizen said...

Well we must also thank Thomas Moore for adding his special touch to the Chelsea neighborhood. Now, nearby Citizen is a little more proud to be part of a section of the city that brought forth one of the most beloved stories in our holiday history.