It’s unusual to see small brick and frame buildings facing major north-south avenues in Manhattan but there’s a group of them here in Chelsea on the west side of 9th Avenue north of West 21st. Nos. 185-189 are small wooden structures built from 1856-1868 for James N. Wells’ real estate interests. The brick building on the corner is actually the oldest, constructed in 1831-1832. Wells himself lived in the building for a few years beginning in 1833. Later, he would occupy a handsome Greek Revival house at #162 9th Avenue at West 20th Street, and then several more homes in fashionable neighborhoods.
It was Wells who along with Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” who began the development of modern Chelsea in the 1830s. Even though Moore opposed the grid plan that would ultimately divide his landholdings in western Manhattan, he knew where his bread was buttered and sold subdivisions to wealthy New Yorkers, complete with covenants that specified what could and could not be built on the properties. Stables, factories and slaughterhouses were out. Even today, Chelsea, with its attached suburban-ish homes on side streets between about West 17th-West 22nd Streets, has a pleasant, small-town uniformity about it.
The faded sign on the brick building a few doors down from his old house carried Wells’ name for over a century until the sun finally bleached it out of existence.