Chelsea was the first neighborhood I lived in as a 20-something moving to NYC. Back then, it wasn’t “The Chelsea” we know today, with the art galleries, High Line and Chelsea Market, but there was an energy there and you could tell it was going in that direction. Since it is where I first landed it holds a special place in my heart so I thought I would take a look back at the neighborhood with an eye to the evolution of its residential architecture.
It all started in 1750 when Thomas Clarke, a British Captain, bought waterfront property (what is today Eighth and Tenth Avenues, and 19th and 24th Streets) and named his estate “Chelsea” after a soldiers’ hospital near London. His grandson, Clement Clarke Moore (the writer of The Night Before Christmas and considered to be the Founder of Chelsea as a neighborhood), partitioned the estate in the 1830’s to create residential homes. A fun fact: he instructed that every plot had to have little gardens out front to ensure that the city workers would live with nature, rather than smoke from factories.
Located in the Chelsea Historic District, a small strip of townhouses called Cushman Row, were built in 1840 by dry goods merchant Don Alonzo Cushman, who made a fortune developing the Chelsea area. He was a wealthy friend of Clement Clarke Moore who lived in Greenwich Village, and as his neighborhood developed, he purchased property from Moore with intentions to build a graceful residential neighborhood.
Two of the most notable buildings that were erected in these early years were the Chelsea Hotel and London Terrace. The Chelsea Hotel was built in 1883 in the style of Queen Anne Revival and Victorian Gothic. It was New York’s first cooperative apartment complex intended as housing for artists, and was the tallest building in the city until 1902. The building eventually went bankrupt with the decline of the economy and the relocation of the Theatre District. It later re-opened as a hotel in 1905.
London Terrace was built in the ornamental Tuscan style of architecture in 1930. When it opened it was one of the world’s largest apartment buildings, and cost over $25M to build (equivalent to around $400M today). The name stems from the former development also known as London Terrace, which consisted of roughly 80 houses resembling London flats. The location was selected by the developer due to the short walk to midtown Manhattan offices, as a way to provide modern low-priced housing for “white collar” workers. With this new complex, the population of the block increased from approximately 400 to roughly 5,000 people.
Fast forward to the dozens of new developments in the neighborhood – particularly around the coveted elevated park – High Line. It has become a mecca for renowned global architects to leave their mark on what has become one of the most sought after neighborhoods in the city. There is a lot of impressive design to say the least, but my favorite is the late Zaha Hadid’s condo residences at 520 W. 28th Street that were completed this year.
Hadid’s signature organic forms and graceful curves inspired by nature is what I love about her work – it is a welcome sensory experience in our city of skyscrapers. I also greatly appreciate that the steel facade (which was brushed and tinted by hand) references the High Line while also celebrating Chelsea’s industrial past. A beautiful building that upholds the distinctive character of the neighborhood.