Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Alexander Clinton House - 358 West 20th Street

photo by the author

James N. Wells began his career as a carpenter-builder in Greenwich Village.  He branched out into real estate in 1819, and the following decade became the property manager of Clement Clarke Moore, who had begun parceling off his family's country estate, Chelsea.  By 1835 Wells had amassed a significant personal fortune.  He and his wife had six children, John R, Josephine, Emma, Julia, Mary S., and James Jr., and lived in a fine, double-wide home at 414 West 22nd Street.

In 1853 Wells initiated construction of six handsome houses for his children on the south side of West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.  Completed the following year, the Anglo-Italianate style homes sat atop low English basements.  Their short, three-step stoops and areaways were guarded by handsome Italianate ironwork.  Three floors of dressed stone sat atop a rusticated base where heavy cornice slabs on brackets capped the doorways.

It appears that few, if any, of the Wells children moved into the row.  Reverend Milo Mahan rented 240 West 20th Street, the westernmost house.  (It would be renumbered 358 in 1865.)  The location was convenient.  Mahan was the Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the nearby General Theological Seminary.

Famed photographer Mathew Brady took this photograph of Rev. Milo Mahan. from the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Mahan's successful career had a shaky start.  Born in Virginia in 1819, his father, an Irish immigrant, died when Milo was two years old.  According to The World Biographical Encyclopedia, his half-brother, Dennis Hart Mahan, "assumed responsibility for the care and education of the boy."  Somewhat a prodigy, at the age of 17 Milo Mahan was teaching Greek at the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

Rev. Mahan relocated from West 20th Street in 1857.  (Interestingly, his vocal support of the South led to his resignation from the Seminary in 1864 and a move to Baltimore.)  A string of tenants followed.  Edward R. Swasey leased the house from 1857 to 1858.  He was a partner with George Swasey in the leather firm of E. R. Swasey & Co.  His family was followed by that of John D. Wilcox.

Wilcox was in the butter business when he moved in, but had switched to meat, operating from the Washington Market, by 1863.  He and his wife took in a few boarders, as was common.  An advertisement in September 1861 read:

Furnished room to let--With Board, to gentlemen and their wives, or single gentlemen, at No. 240 West Twentieth street.  Dinner at 6 o'clock.

The Webster family leased the house in 1864 and 1865.  Bela C. Webster was in the drygoods business, and George H. Webster was a flour merchant.

When Dr. Alexander James Clinton and his family moved in, the house finally received long-term residents.  The physician had an impressive pedigree and was related to General James Clinton and Governor DeWitt Clinton.  He and his wife, the former Adeline Arden Hamilton, had seven children.

Their 30-year-old son Charles William Clinton was an  architect.  He had trained in the office of esteemed architect Richard Upjohn, and at the age of 25 opened his own practice in 1858.  A member of the Seventh Regiment's Company K, he would design its spectacular Seventh Regiment Armory in 1880.

The Clinton family seems to have expected much from their domestic staff.  In most high-end homes, cooks were not responsible for anything other than food preparation.  But the Clintons' ad in May 1872 read, "Wanted--In private family, a good plain cook, washer and ironer; wages $14 per month.  Apply at 358 West 20th st., near 9th av."  The salary would translate to about $320 a month in 2023.

The Clintons moved out in 1875.  The house was next leased by the William P. Holls family.  On September 29, 1877, an advertisement in The New York Times offered the house for rent again.  "A four-story brown-stone house, No. 358 West 20th-st., newly furnished and in complete order; seen any time."

It appears the new lessee of 358 West 20th Street operated it as a boarding house.  Living here in 1878 were Harvey J. Beck, a clerk, and Richard D. Joost, who listed his profession as "tasselmaker."  It returned to a private home again in the early 1890s.

P. A. Haverty was a commissioner of deeds, similar to today's notary public.  His daughter Geraldine taught in the Primary Department of Grammar School No. 37 on East 87th Street.

The house was sold at auction on April 7, 1897 and purchased by William J. McIlvaine and his wife, Mary.  The couple had a daughter, Lydia.  McIlvaine was president of the Literary Society of the Twenty-Third Street Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association.  Lydia graduated from Normal College in 1909, and immediately took the test to be certified as a teacher in the New York City public schools.

Mary Shaw McIlvaine died on March 26, 1911.  Her funeral took place in the residence the following evening at 8:00.  It is unclear how long William McIlvaine remained in the house.

On June 5, 1943, The New York Sun reported, "A new organization to assist war widows in making psychological and material adjustments has been formed...The organization, the American Widows of World War II, has its headquarters at 358 West 20th Street."

The row as it appeared when the American Widows used 358 West 20th Street (third from right).  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

In 1978, Central Hall Gallery opened in the house.  It was supplanted in 2010 by Nyehaus.  In announcing its pending opening, Artspace said, "run by noted collector, curator, and philanthopist Tim Nye, [it] will create a context for the critical and in-depth exploration of work by important contemporary artists, predominantly those in mid-career."  Nyehause remained in the space through 2013.

image via

Essentially intact on the exterior, 358 West 20th Street is a two-family house today.

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  1. James Wells became the property manager for a man who'd begun breaking up his family's country estate, Chelsea. So how did Wells amass a significant personal fortune? Not just by managing the Moore estate, probably.

    I am certain the 8 members of the Wells family were delighted to live in a fine, double-wide home. I would have loved it.

    1. Wells was a prolific builder, as well, responsible for dozens of high-end homes like these, both in Chelsea and Greenwich Village.