Monday, December 25, 2017

The Lost Clement C. Moore "Chelsea House"


Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1856 (copyright expired)

Retired British Army Captain Thomas Clarke was 53 when he married Mary Stillwell in 1745.  His bride, who came from an aristocratic family, was reportedly not especially pleased when her husband decided to take her and their young daughter, Charity, to America.

The upper regions of Manhattan were dotted with country estates--many owned by British officers, others by wealthy merchants.  In 1750 Clarke purchased nearly 94 acres from Jacob Somerindyck.  The deed was quoted in The New York Times later as "all that farm or plantation in the Bassau Bowery on the West side of Manhattan Island, bounded on the west by the Hudson River, on the east by land of John Horn, on the north by the land of Widow Cowenhoven and Brandt Schuyer, on the south by land of Sir Peter Warren and Yellis Mandeville."

In terms more relatable to 21st century minds, the estate stretched from approximately what is today Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, and from 21st Street to 24th.  Clarke moved his wife and daughter into the existing wooden dwelling, which he had updated, improved and christened Chelsea House.  In 1856 Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York explained, "It may be well to mention why the place was called Chelsea.  Thomas Clarke had been an officer in a provincial corps.  He bought the farm in 1750, and called it Chelsea, being the retreat of an old soldier."  (Chelsea Hospital, in London, took care of injured and aged soldiers.)

The bucolic residence, like all Manhattan's elegant country estates, was surrounded by orchards and gardens.  Its location atop a hill provided relief from summer heat.  Mary, who was known as Molly, was known as a gracious hostess and entertained often.  Among the frequent guests would be Rev. Benjamin Moore, who was assigned to Trinity Church and its chapels around 1772.

By 1774 Thomas and Mary Clarke had five children.   In February that year tragedy struck when Chelsea House caught fire.  The family escaped, but Clarke was severely burned.  He was taken to a neighboring farm where he survived.  He died about 1777.

By then he and Mary had rebuilt Chelsea House, this time using brick and stone rather than wood.  Two stories tall, it was an elegant Georgian style structure with a central, angled bay and flanking wings.

Valentine's Manual depicted Chelsea House as it appeared in 1816.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

As war swept over the island, Mary remained in Chelsea House.  According to historian Alexander Scala, of her four children still living--Charity, Mary, Maria Teresa and Clement--only the last two still lived in the house in 1776. 

Soldiers were billeted there; apparently much to the discomfort of the two women.   According to D. T. Valentine decades later, it "caused them so much distress that one of the officers represented their situation to General Washington, who thereupon rode to the house, upon his white charger, and gave orders by which the family were relieved."

Valentine's account included an anecdote which shed light on Mary's refined upbringing.  "While the American troops were there, a British vessel, sailing in the Hudson, fired a ball, which lodged in the house, but hurt no one.  It left a mark, which remained for years, in one of the partitions.  Mrs. Clarke was, at the time, from home.  As she was returning, in her chaise, a Yankee soldier met her and said, 'Mrs. Clarke, the British have fired a shot into your house.'  'Thank you for that,' she said."

When the British occupied the island, Hessian soldiers were stationed in the house and on the grounds.  Valentine noted that their commanding officer "proved to be so gentlemanly and polite that he became a favorite with the family."  He told them that he had heard of their dread of him and that he was determined to prove "the injustice of their apprehensions.'"

On April 30, 1778 Charity and Rev. Benjamin Moore were married in Trinity Church.  The newlyweds moved into the Chelsea house with Charity's mother and sister.  The following year, on July 15, the couple had a son.  He was christened Clement Clarke Moore on August 11.

The Clarkes and Moores had always owned slaves. as was customary among wealthy Manhattan estate owners.  In 1799 New York State passed an abolition law; but enforcement was gradual.  (It would not be until 1827, and despite Clement Clarke Moore's vocal opposition, that all New York slaves were liberated.)

Mary Stillwell Clarke died in 1802 and Chelsea passed to her son-in-law.  Moore expanded the estate, purchasing land south to 19th Street.  Following his appointment to Bishop of New York in 1813, he and Charity deeded the property to Clement, although they remained there until their deaths.

Clement Clarke Moore had been tutored by his father, who instilled in him a love of literature.  He graduated from Columbia College in 1798 and was a scholar in Greek and Hebrew.

On November 20, 1813 Moore married Catherine Elizabeth Taylor.  Prior to the Bishop Moore's death in 1816, the family house was enlarged, Valentine noting "the old house had a third story added to it, cellars built under the old foundation, and the whole square was walled around."  The result was an impressive mansion with a hip roof and high porch.  But the end of the era of luxurious country houses in Manhattan was quickly drawing to a close.

Clement Clarke Moore's daughter, Mary, created this sketch of the family house in 1855, which clearly shows its Georgian bones, including the faceted bay.


Two years after his father's death, the city was inching towards Chelsea.  According to The New York Times on April 17, 1904, "Presently [after the bishop's death] the good Clement C. was much annoyed by boys and adolescent hoodlums, who came out from 'the city' to depredate [sic] his vines and fig trees.  The annoyance became intolerable insomuch that he started one day into 'town' determined to rid himself of the annoyance by dispossessing himself of the estate."

Intending to sell the entire estate for $40,000 (about $780,000 today), his plans were upset when he ran into builder James N. Wells, according to the article.  "On his way to consummate this suicidal transaction the good, unworldly man met an acquaintance of his, a carpenter named Wells, and confided to him his intention.  Nay, said the well-counseled Wells.  Do not part with the farm.  Lay it out in streets and city lots corresponding to the 'system' (the Street Commissioners of 1807 had already got in their deadly work) and invite settlers."

It was the beginning of a long-lasting business relationship between the two men and the end of Chelsea as a private estate.  In 1825 he donated his apple orchard (66 tracts of land) to the Episcopal Church as the location for its General Theological Seminary.  He was appointed professor of Bible learning in the new institution.

As the flurry of development took hold on his land, Moore moved his family to Elmhurst, Queens.  But the move did not happen before he wrote his now-famous poem, "The Visit of St. Nicolas."

A century later, on December 19, 1926, Eunice Fuller Barnard wrote in The New York Times, "This verse he is said to have composed in 1822, at his father's imposing tree-shaded country house in old Chelsea Village, at the corner of what is now Twenty-third Street and Ninth Avenue.  He did it, he told an interviewer from the New York Historical Society forty years later, simply as a Christmas present for his two daughters, making St. Nicholas the hero at the suggestion of 'a portly, rubicund Dutchman living in the neighborhood.'"

Artist unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Moore's relocation did not mean he disappeared from Chelsea.  He closely worked with Wells, maintained his post in the General Theological Seminary until 1850, and was highly involved in St. Peter's Episcopal Church on West 20th Street.

The end of the Chelsea House came when the city graded the area hills, including the one under the mansion, in the early 1850s.  D. T. Valentine explained "So the place remained until the Corporation of the city ordered a bulkhead to be built along the river front.  It was thought advisable, if not absolutely necessary, to dig down the whole place, and throw it into the river; when, of course, the old house was destroyed."

The London Terrace apartments sit approximately on the site of the Moore estate. Google street views

1 comment:

  1. IMHO the Chelsea House as pictured in the 1816 illustration was sheer perfection.

    ReplyDelete