News

A Look at the History of the Penn Station Neighborhood

(Preservation League of NYS) July 13, 2022

This guest blog post from the Empire Station Coalition (ESC) details the history of the neighborhood surrounding Penn Station — a current League Seven to Save. The neighborhood is in danger of large-scale demolition if the State’s current redevelopment plans move forward. Along with ESC and countless local residents, the League believes this plan is deeply flawed. Many of the buildings slated for demolition are architecturally significant and could easily be adaptively reused to serve contemporary needs. The displacement of residents and business owners is unconscionable. And the needless destruction of so many buildings would be an environmental disaster. Construction and demolition are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and this project would have an enormous impact.

The proposed Pennsylvania Station Civic and Land Use Project (the “Penn Area Plan”) would demolish multiple blocks of historic buildings in New York City in the vicinity of Pennsylvania Station while displacing thousands of residents and businesses. The devastating plan put forward by New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation is an eerie echo of the loss of the original Pennsylvania Station, coming as it does 60 years after the famous 1962 sidewalk picket by the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY), which included Jane Jacobs and a host of notable architects and preservationists fighting to prevent the demise of that great train station. 

What is at risk if today’s Penn Area Plan is approved? Governor Hochul’s tweaked version of the original plan by the Cuomo administration does little to ameliorate major losses to Gotham’s historic fabric. Familiar structures like the Hotel Pennsylvania (McKim, Mead & White, 1919), Hotel Stewart (Murgatroyd and Ogden with George B. Post, 1929), and Gimbels “Sky Bridge” Traverse (Shreve & Lamb, 1925) would be destroyed. So too St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church (Napoleon LeBrun, 1872) and the Pennsylvania Station Service Building (McKim, Mead and White, 1908 – one of the only lingering remnants of the old Penn Station complex). All told, over 40 historic structures, including multiple buildings eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places and eligible for New York City individual landmark designation stand to be lost. The loss of embodied energy/carbon from the proposed mass demolition would be staggering.

A group of concerned organizations, the Empire Station Coalition (ESC), banded together to fight the plan beginning in 2020. ESC’s virtual townhalls, rallies, press conferences, night walks, and engagement with public officials continue to push the Penn Area Plan’s many flaws to the front burner of public attention. The neighborhood groups, preservation organizations, and urbanism nonprofits that make up the ESC continue to prioritize the retention and adaptive reuse of historic structures in the Penn Area in what has emerged as a highly contentious public debate over the future of urbanism in New York City.

HISTORY AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PROJECT AREA

Chelsea takes its name from the estate and Georgian-style house of retired British Major Thomas Clarke, who obtained the property when he bought the farm of Jacob Somerindyck on August 16, 1750. The land was bounded by what would become 21st and 24th Streets, from the Hudson River to Eighth Avenue. Clarke chose the name “Chelsea” after the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement home for soldiers in London. Clarke passed the estate on to his daughter, Charity, who, with her husband Benjamin Moore, added land on the south of the estate, extending it to 19th Street. The house was the birthplace of their son, Clement Clarke Moore, who in turn inherited the property. Moore is generally credited with writing A Visit From St. Nicholas and was the author of the first Greek and Hebrew lexicons printed in the United States.

In 1827, Moore gave the land of his apple orchard to the Episcopal Diocese of New York for the General Theological Seminary, which built its brownstone Gothic, tree-shaded campus south of the manor house. Despite his objections to the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, which ran the new Ninth Avenue through the middle of his estate, Moore began the development of Chelsea with the help of James N. Wells, dividing it up into lots along Ninth Avenue and selling them to well-heeled New Yorkers. Covenants in the deeds of sale specified what could be built on the land – stables, manufacturing and commercial uses were forbidden – as well as architectural details of the buildings.

The new neighborhood thrived for three decades, with many single family homes and rowhouses, in the process expanding past the original boundaries of Clarke’s estate, but an industrial zone also began to develop along the Hudson. In 1847, the Hudson River Railroad laid its freight tracks up a right-of-way between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, separating Chelsea from the Hudson River waterfront. By the time of the Civil War, the area west of Ninth Avenue and below 20th Street was the location of numerous distilleries making turpentine and camphene, a lamp fuel. In addition, the huge Manhattan Gas Works complex, which converted bituminous coal into gas, was located at Ninth and 18th Street.

The industrialization of western Chelsea brought immigrant populations from many countries to work in the factories, including a large number of Irish immigrants, who dominated work on the Hudson River piers that lined the nearby waterfront and the truck terminals integrated with the freight railroad spur. Along with the piers, warehouses and factories, the industrial area west of Tenth Avenue also included lumberyards, breweries, and tenements built to house the workers. With the immigrant population came the political domination of the neighborhood by the Tammany Hall machine, as well as festering ethnic tensions: around 67 people died in a riot between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants on July 12, 1871, which took place around 24th Street and Eighth Avenue. The social problems of the area’s workers provoked John Lovejoy Elliot to form the Hudson Guild in 1897, one of the first settlement houses – private organizations designed to provide social services.

A theater district had formed in the area by 1869, and soon West 23rd Street was the center of American theater, led by Pike’s Opera House (1868, demolished 1960), on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue. Other notable theaters of the period include Edwin Booth’s theater at West 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue and The Madison Square Theater which were both known for their innovations in machinery used for productions. Augustin Daly, one of the great impresarios of the day and his famous stock company held court at theaters in the area. Eleanor Duse, Sarah Bernhart, Lilly Langtry and Helena Modjeska were some of the 19th Century grand dames of the stage to trod the boards of Chelsea theaters in the era.

Vaudeville had a notable presence at both Kostar & Bial’s Music Hall as well as Henry Miner’s Theater. The remaining vestiges of this era are a saloon building connected to Kostar and Bial’s at 24th St and Sixth Ave and the remains of Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street. Both these historic resources remain without any official protection despite efforts of preservationists for many years to have them designated. Chelsea was an early center for the motion picture industry before World War I. Some of Mary Pickford’s first pictures were made on the top floors of an armory building at 221 West 26th Street, while other studios were located on 23rd and 21st Streets.

The upper boundary of Chelsea became home to a thriving garment district which was established in the early 1900s. Scores of industrial manufacturers, tailors, and notions sellers took up space in loft buildings created for this purpose. As a nod to the garment production roots, many of the buildings had brickwork intended to almost mimic the texture of woven fine fabric. Additionally, the garment district reflects a noted Jewish presence from the many furriers who sold their wares there.

London Terrace was one of the world’s largest apartment blocks when it opened in 1930, with a swimming pool, solarium, gymnasium, and doormen dressed as London bobbies. Other major housing complexes in the Chelsea area are Penn South, a 1962 cooperative housing development sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, and the New York City Housing Authority-built and-operated Fulton Houses and Chelsea-Elliot Houses.

The massive 23-story Art Deco Walker Building, which spans the block between 17th and 18th Streets just off of Seventh Avenue, was built in the early 1930s. It typifies the real estate activity of the district, as it had been converted in 2012 to residential apartments on the top 16 floors, with Verizon retaining the lower seven floors. The building, designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, was the Verizon Building before being converted to residences.

In the early 1940s, tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project were stored in the Baker & Williams Warehouse at 513-519 West 20th Street. The uranium was removed and a decontamination project at the site was completed in the early 1990s.

By the 1890s, there was a French colony centered in Manhattan’s West 20s and 30s. This community had previously located in the areas now known as the South Village and SOHO and originally consisted of refugee comunards after the fall of the Paris Commune in the early 1870s. Saint Vincent de Paul on West 23rd Street and the French Evangelical Church on West 16th Street served Roman Catholic and Protestant French adherents respectively. Among the other institutions anchoring the district were the Cercle Francaise de l’Harmonie, on West 26th Street, a social hub.

A battalion of the Guards of Lafayette, with headquarters on West 25th Street, “keeps alive national traditions among young Frenchmen in New York.” As for young French women, they had the Jeanne d’Arc Home, described as a home for “friendless French girls.” They still rent rooms to women today. The French Benevolent Society, French Hospital, an orphanage, and several professional groups representing French chefs, waiters, and musicians also made their home in the neighborhood.

Around the same time a substantial portion of the city’s African American community relocated from what is now Greenwich Village and SOHO to the west 20s and 30s as well. This community would relocate to Harlem beginning in the early 1900s and accelerating with the demolition of several blocks for the Construction of Penn Station. Many prominent churches of Harlem today have their roots in northern Chelsea and the South Village. Scott Joplin is said to have written much of Tremonisha while living on 29th Street near Tin Pan Alley, the cradle of American pop culture. Sadly racial tensions erupted into a horrific race riot in 1900 not far from where Draft Rioters had attacked the home of prominent Abolitionists in the 1860s.

A substantial Greek presence connected to the fur trade was found in Northern Chelsea in the mid-20th century. This community is still present in the flower trade on West 28th Street. In the years after Egypt expelled the Alexandrian Greeks, a Greek restaurant with belly dancers as entertainment was operated out of Lamartine Hall on the NW corner of W29th Street and Eighth Avenue.

A visible LGBTQ+ population has been evident since at least the late 1960s, and in the 1990s Chelsea had the status as the “gayest zip code in the USA.” In truth there has been a presence of notable LGBTQ+ people, particularly connected to the arts, since probably at least the 1870s when the area was New York’s theater district.

Particularly from the 1990s onward, development pressures have increased dramatically throughout the greater Chelsea area, giving rise to the loss of several significant historic structures and raising alarm that many more were in peril.

Empire Station Coalition July 11, 2022