Thursday, January 16, 2014

The 1825 James N. Wells House -- 487 Hudson Street

The house is two bays wider than its neighbors -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1714, Queen Anne bestowed on Trinity Church a vast section of land stretching along the Hudson River from Duane Street to what would become Christopher Street to the north in the Village of Greenwich.  The large tract of land became familiarly known as the “Trinity Farm” or the “Church Farm.”

The sleepy hamlet would see a tremendous building boom as a result of the 1822 yellow fever epidemic that caused New York City residents to flee northward to the country.  Yet, two years earlier, an ambitious development project on the Trinity Church land was already under consideration.

Mrs. Catherine Ritter lived at the corner of West 4th Street and Little Jones Street.  A meeting was held in her house in 1820 with the goal in mind to see an Episcopalian chapel erected in the village.  On November 6 of that year, the parish of St. Luke’s was organized.  Clement C. Moore, whose family estate Chelsea sat north of Greenwich Village, was named senior warden.

The chosen site for the chapel sat mid-block on the west side of Hudson Street between Christopher and Barrow Streets.  The rural setting resulted in its being popularly called “St. Luke’s in the Fields,” a moniker that survives today.  Construction on St. Luke’s Chapel began in 1821 and was completed a year later.  The structure was erected by James N. Wells, who would later nearly single-handedly develop Moore’s Chelsea into a vibrant community. 
St. Luke's, a chapel of Trinity Church, was completed in 1822 -- photo by Alice Lum

With the chapel completed, attention was focused on developing the rest of the church-owned block.  Wells would be responsible for encircling the block with Federal-style rowhouses which shielded from public view the graveyard and gardens of the chapel.  Among the first four homes to be built was 487 Hudson Street which flanked the chapel to the north and would become home to James N. Wells, himself.  Construction was completed in 1825 and Wells’s home would be the largest on the block—a full 36 feet wide.  Two-and-a-half stories high, it featured the expected dormers sitting above the eave line, and a handsome entrance with Ionic columns, sidelights and transom.
The handsome entrance survives intact.  Flemish bond brickwork adds to the charm and the window to the right of the door retains its paneled lintel. --photo by Alice Lum

Wells lived in the spacious home until 1833 when he moved to No. 183 Ninth Avenue in Chelsea.  Within the decade the Hudson Street house would become home to the family of Captain William Newcomb.  Here, on the afternoon of Saturday, December 21, 1844, Newcomb’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, died.  Her funeral was held in the parlor at 3:30 on Christmas Eve.

Within two years the large home was being operated as a boarding house.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 5, 1846 offered, “Furnished rooms with board to be obtained at No. 487 Hudson-st.  References exchanged.”  It was apparently at this time that Francis Brett Harte’s family lived here, having arrived from Albany in 1845.  Brett Harte would grow up to become one of Americans most beloved writers.

In 1851, the church took over the house as St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Christian Females.  The institution was incorporated on January 12, 1854, and was supported mainly by private donations.   In 1855, the Journal of the Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church complained about tepid donations.

In 1857 the house had been raised to a full three floors--from the collection of the New York Public Library

St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Females, though in more vigorous operation, and unable to meet the numerous applicants for admission, has not received the wide support which an indispensable church institution demands.  As this is not a parochial institution, (only one of its inmates being from St. Luke’s Parish) but general both in its organization and in its admissions from the city parishes at large, its humane benefits will, we trust, enlist the more general interest and support of the Church.

On January 14, 1864, the Home received a windfall when New York City Board of Councilmen voted to donate $1,000 (a generous $25,500 in today’s terms).  On Christmas Eve 1867 there were 31 “inmates” in the home.  That year temperance advocate J. B. Swann donated the women’s Christmas dinner.  “Turkeys and geese are to be the substantials,” reported the New-York Tribune.  However, the newspaper noted that Christmas was an understated holiday—its focus being more religious than festive.  “Beyond this nothing is to be done, as in this Institution ‘Thanksgiving’ is the principal day.”

By 1870, the building had been enlarged to the rear.  That year the Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities described it, saying, “The building…is thirty-six feet front by forty-feet deep, and three stories high, with an extension eighteen by thirty-six feet.  It is in good repair and well furnished, and adapted to its present use.”

By now, there were 34 women living here.  The Committee noted “They are admitted for life, and none are removed except upon the request of relatives or friends desirous of providing for their support.”

The elderly women were comfortable, but clearly not pampered.  “The house is plainly but comfortably furnished, the table is well supplied, and proper medical attention is given to the sick and the infirm.”

In 1871, a confusing legal issue arose when John Alstyne died.  In his will he bequeathed $25,000 to “The Old Ladies’ Home.”  The problem was that no institution went by that name.  When The Home for Aged and Indigent Females laid claim to the hefty legacy, St. Luke’s Home countered with a law suit.  It took Judge Spencer several months of consideration to decide that it was St. Luke’s Home that Alstyne had in mind.

The windfall would help in the construction of the new St. Luke’s Home for Indigent Christian Females on Madison Avenue and 89th Street the following year.  In 1872, Wood’s Illustrated Hand-book to New York and Environs remarked on the coming move.  “It is at present on Hudson street, and its doors are open to persons of respectability in reduced circumstances, and who are members of the Episcopal Church.  The new building just ready for occupation…is four stories high.  The style is mediaeval Gothic, with Mansard roof and three towers.”

The house on Hudson Street was immediately taken over by a new institution.  The Home for Old Men and Aged Couples was incorporated in 1872.  The New York Times explained, “While St. Luke’s afforded a refuge for aged Christian women, there was no place under church influences open to receive old men, or where an aged couple could pass their declining years together.  It was also desired to extend a home to those who had once been prosperous, and while so unfortunate as to lose their property still retained their good names.”

Although there was a considerable admission fee of $250, the elderly men and aged married couples lived cost-free after that.  Bishop Horatio Potter described the home in flowery Victorian prose:

The very name of such a home calls up before the mind an image of touching interest.  We think of the life within that Christian Home—serene, patient, cheerful—of the aged men rescued from lonely want and suffering, and brought into a family where needed comforts are secured to them, where love reigns, and where, by kindly looks and words they can contribute to each other’s enjoyment.  We think of the aged couples saved from the bitterness of separation—saved from the daily dread of a to-morrow, harder to bear than the cold and hunger of to-day; we think of these aged couples established in a Christian home, provided with simple comforts, themselves overflowing with gratitude to God and to their early friends for the unimagined blessings vouchsafed to them, and never weary of exchanging with other inmates as favored as themselves the touching story of former trials and present mercies.

The Home flourished and in 1872 the New York City Mission and Tract Society noted, “The House now numbers among its inmates several who have been successful in the learned professions, and who have had high standing in mercantile life in this city.”  The report added “Here their remaining days can be passed in comfort, and free from anxiety as to whence their daily bread will come.  Only those who are too old to take care of themselves, and who have no one friend from whom they can claim support, are admitted.”
At some point an architecturally-questionable hood was installed over the entrance -- photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On December 1, 1887, the Home held its 15th annual reception.  By now there were 31 elderly persons living in the house.  “The old people received their friends in the parlors,” reported The New York Times.  “Other rooms were fitted up with tables upon which were spread for sale fancy work of all descriptions, contributed by Miss Byson, Mrs. Kane, Mrs. O’Connor, and Mrs. Williams.  The proceeds are to go to the home.”

In 1892, King’s Handbook of New York City was still a bit surprised that the home allowed inmates of both sexes.  “The home is at 487 Hudson Street, and here aged married couples are allowed to dwell comfortably together during their closing years.”  By now the number of residents had risen to 36.

Like its predecessor, The Home for Old Men and Aged Couples eventually moved further uptown.  In 1896 it acquired land on 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and completed a new building the following year.
Little has changed to No. 487 Hudson Street since Berenice Abbott took this photograph on June 13, 1936 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The house remained little changed throughout the 20th century.  By the 1960s it served as St. Luke’s Parish House, and then as St. Luke’s School.  In describing it and its surviving neighbors, the Landmarks Preservation Commission said, “These houses provide us with some of the finest examples of Federal architecture remaining in the city, and are among the few of the period for which a builder is definitely known.”


  1. So much change has altered the landscape of Manahttan over the past 100 years, wiping away landmarks and humble early structures alike, yet surprising examples like this strecth of hudson Street, utterly defying logic and hungry developers alike, stillcanbe found if you look for them. Wonderful post. NYarch

  2. True, so little has changed since the Berenice Abbott photo. The church, of course, is a recreation; the original burnt down a few decades ago.

    1. The 1980 fire destroyed the interior of the church; the original exterior structure survived the fire and survives to this day.

  3. Most unfortunately.. but not surprisingly, the church has sold to a developer and there's a planned highrise condo that will forever alter the historic nature and delight of the block. -W

  4. Church of St Luke's in the Towering Luxury Highrise