Clement Clarke Moore is best remembered today for writing the classic Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”). But he was also largely responsible for transforming his family’s farm into what is now the neighborhood of Chelsea.
Moore’s grandfather, a retired British major named Thomas Clarke, purchased the farmland in 1750. The 94-acre plot encompassed roughly what is now 21st to 24th Streets, from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. Clarke named his estate after London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea, which served soldiers and veterans, and built a mansion near what became 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue, now the site of the 1,700-unit London Terrace apartment complex. (As an aside, writers John O’Hara and Susan Sontag are among the notables who have called London Terrace home. So did Chelsea Clinton, who was named after the song “Chelsea Morning,” which Joni Mitchell wrote while living in the neighborhood.)
Clement Clarke Moore’s daughter, Mary C. Ogden, drew this picture of her family’s Chelsea mansion, where Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Image: public domain/Wikimedia
Clarke’s daughter, Chastity, inherited the estate. With her husband, the Rev. Benjamin Moore, she expanded the estate as far south to what is now 19th Street. Not only did Rev. Moore serve as the fifth president of Columbia University, from 1801 to 1810, but in 1815 he also became the second Episcopal bishop of New York. More than a decade before donning the bishop’s miter, he gave Communion to the dying Alexander Hamilton after the latter’s 1804 duel with Aaron Burr.
Chastity and Benjamin Moore’s son, Clement Clarke Moore, was born in his family’s Chelsea manor home in 1779. A scholar who wrote the first Greek and Hebrew lexicons published in the United States, he was less than delighted by the city’s Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. At the time, Houston Street was for all intents and purposes the northern border of Manhattan; in fact, the eastern portion of the road was named North Street at the time. The plan called for constructing a grid of streets throughout much of the rest of Manhattan; the proposed Ninth Avenue was slated to run right through the Moore family’s holdings.
Clement Moore tried to rally other landowners to protest the city’s expansion and the taxes required to pay for the development of streets and other public works, going so far as to call the taxes “a tyranny no monarch in Europe would dare to exercise.” His pamphlets and protestations, however, had no effect. So Moore, who had been deeded the estate by his parents in 1813, decided he might as well profit from the encroaching urbanization. He began to sell off parts of his property to upscale residents who were eager to leave overcrowded lower Manhattan but still wanted to partake of city life.
Leafy West 22nd Street, Chelsea. Image: GK tramrunner229/Wikimedia
After selling some lots on his own, Moore teamed with real-estate investor James N. Wells in the early 1830s to sell even more of his estate. Moore and Wells tied covenants to the lots: Each was to be used only for construction of a house, and each house had to have a front garden. Only three-story homes could be built on avenues and only two-story houses on streets. In a sense, Moore and Wells were creating an early version of a planned community.
Moore did not sell all of the lots. He donated his apple orchard, located on what is now the block between 20th and 21st Streets and 9th and 10th Avenues, to the Episcopal archdiocese, on the condition that the land be used for a seminary. Construction of the General Theological Seminary began in 1827; the school remains there today. Moore also gave to the archdiocese the plot of land at 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, which since 1831 has been the site of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
The close of the General Theological Seminary. Image: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia
Chelsea the neighborhood has long since expanded beyond the borders of Chelsea the country estate, and subsequent owners and developers erected tenements, stables, factories, theaters, and other sorts of properties that would never have passed Moore’s muster. But it is thanks to Moore’s vision—or, if you prefer, his control-freak tendencies—that parts of Chelsea retain a charmingly old-fashioned, almost small-town feel.