An unhurried neighborhood in hectic New York Chelsea: There's plenty to do in this 250-year-old enclave of textbook architecture, great shopping, neat secondhand stores and historic buildings.

March 17, 1996|By RALPH VIGODA | RALPH VIGODA,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

I was strolling in the quadrangle of the General Theological Seminary, in the heart of Chelsea one of my favorite New York neighborhoods when I heard the laughter of a child playing on a swing.

Nearby, a woman knelt in the dirt among the shrubbery, repairing some plantings. Two girls, animated in conversation, walked on the concrete path, ignoring a cat sunning itself on a stoop. Although it was late fall, the grass was still a summery green and the tall trees had most of their leaves, shading the roofs of the century-old English Gothic buildings.

It was such a bucolic setting that I had to pause briefly under an apple tree heavy with fruit, steeling myself for the contrast that was just 20 steps away: Ninth Avenue, a busy, noisy, six-lane Manhattan street, choked with cars, messengers on bicycles and in-line skates, and pierced by that New York constant, the taxi horn.

I lingered because I needed another minute to soak up this pastoral oasis before venturing into urban reality. And in all of New York I'm not sure there's a finer place to mentally refuel than this quadrangle.

It is just one of the great things about Chelsea, and it can be hard to avoid the temptation to stay on the grounds too long. But try to tear yourself away, because there's plenty more to do and see in this 250-year-old enclave of textbook architecture, great shopping, neat secondhand stores, historic buildings and a hotel that has housed such diverse personalities as O. Henry and Sid Vicious.

All that and it was the inspiration for one of the most enduring holiday poems ever written.

Still, for a New York neighborhood, it doesn't get much notice. That may be because it's bordered by two areas that hog a lot of publicity: Greenwich Village to the south and Penn Station/Madison Square Garden, which edges into Broadway, to the north. (Chelsea runs from 14th Street to about 30th Street, with the Avenue of the Americas and the Hudson River as its east and west boundaries.)

It wasn't always like this. Chelsea was once the city's live-liest entertainment district. The best and biggest department stores opened here, leading a retailing revolution. The neighborhood was at the center of the early movie industry. A series of buildings along Ninth Avenue, now the site of the massive, 1,670-unit London Terrace Apartments complex, was known as Millionaire's Row, for the wealth of its residents.

However, much of its heyday was in the 19th century; the next century brought an extended period of decline before a renaissance rescued Chelsea. It was, as is often the case, led by a surge of people seeking affordable housing. What could be more attractive than an expansive, 120-year-old fixer-upper in a great location?

In the last decade or so, it has earned a reputation as an arts haven; Chelsea boasts the Art Deco Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Ave.) for live performances and the Dia Center for the Arts (548 W. 22nd St.) for exhibitions. There's also the small Atlantic Theater Company, housed in the parish hall of St. Peter's Episcopal Church (West 20th Street), which between Eighth and Ninth), a house of worship that has changed little since it was completed in 1838.

More recently the area has also become a gathering place for gays. Along Eighth Avenue, for example, bookstores, clubs, workout places and restaurants cater to a gay clientele.

A blast from the past

The real attraction of Chelsea, though, is its historic, residential feel. Street after street is lined with renovated rowhouses dating to the mid-1800s.To walk through Chelsea is to step into a time machine, and to enter it one need go no further than Chelsea Square (Ninth Avenue, between West 20th and West 21st streets), the location of the General Theological Seminary.

The General, as it is known, was founded in 1817, around the time the Episcopal Church separated from the Church of England. It moved to its present location in 1826 on land donated by Clement Clarke Moore, who lived in a handsome home between 22nd and 23rd streets. Moore was a professor of classics and biblical literature at the seminary and the author of the "Lexicon of the Hebrew Language."

You may recognize the name, though, from one of his other works: He wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in 1822 after the story goes he took a sleigh ride home from lower Manhattan, carrying Christmas treats.

Seven homes on the south side of the seminary, known as Cushman Row ( Nos. 408-418 W. 20th St.) are considered among the most beautiful Creek revival townhouses in the country. They were built in 1839 and 1840 by Moore's friend and partner Don Alonzo Cushman (Don was his name, not a title).

Another of Moore's sidekicks in guiding the growth of Chelsea was James N. Wells, who left his mark as well. His real-estate company on West 23rd Street dates to 1819, and a series of narrow, circa 1856, Italianate-style houses at 400-412 W. 22nd St. is known as Wells Row. Wells himself lived in the mansion at No. 414, which was built in 1835.

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