1831 MEETS 2020, Chelsea

by Kevin Walsh

THE view looking north on 9th Avenue from West 20th Street in Chelsea is striking, as the glass-fronted towers of Hudson Yards, one of which contains NYC’s highest observation deck, overshadow several buildings along 9th Avenue built in the early to mid-19th Century. Hudson Yards has at least temporarily turned into a white elephant, as the Pandemic and several economic slowdowns have meant that some of the high-end retail stores have left and offices and residences have been slow to rent. However, the first World Trade Center and even the Empire State Building had trouble attracting tenants in their early years.

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.

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Peter August 30, 2022 - 7:07 pm

With any luck I’ll be proven wrong, but I fear that Hudson Yards will be a white elephant for the foreseeable future, at least as far as the office space is concerned. We’re almost two and a half years after the start of Covid, it doesn’t seem like many people are concerned about it any more, yet working from home (or remote work, as it’s often now called), looks like it’s here to stay 🙁

Tal Barzilai September 3, 2022 - 12:06 am

The way you mentioned this photo reminds me of the famous photo of Old and New New York by Alfred Stieglitz when he showed what already exist with something new showing up in back.


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