The Seminary Block of West 20th Street
The General Theological Seminary’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd overlooks the center of one of New York’s best blocks. The Seminary’s brick collegiate gothic buildings were designed by Charles Coolidge Haight. The Chapel and bell tower of his design were built in 1886-88.
The block of West 20th Street in Chelsea between Ninth and Tenth Avenues is one of New York’s most graceful. It makes for an excellent way to approach or leave the current north end of the newly opened High Line park, just across Tenth Avenue.
West 20th Street viewed from the north end (for now) of the High Line, with the General Theological Seminary on the left. The elevated park’s access stair descends to street level at right.
The campus of the General Theological Seminary, dating from 1826, occupies most of the north side of the block. Its picturesque buildings form a street wall around Tenth Avenue and 21st Street, sheltering park-like grounds that open onto 20th Street above a low retaining wall. The site was donated by Clement Clarke Moore, reputed author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”), who was also the Seminary’s first professor of Greek, Hebrew and Oriental languages. (In 1750, his grandfather, Thomas Clarke, a retired British army captain, bought a farm covering much of what is now Chelsea. The neighborhood takes its name from Clarke’s home, which in turn was named after the manor of Chelsea, Sir Thomas More’s home, or London’s Royal Chelsea Hospital, an old soldiers’ home - take your pick.)
The Seminary’s buildings along Tenth Avenue, left, and 21st Street, above, embrace grounds that are open to 20th Street. Beyond, Neil Denari’s avant-garde HL23 apartment building, which will lean out over the High Line, is visible under construction.
A rough stone wall – still partially in place at left - was removed last year to reveal the lower part of the Seminary’s Tenth Avenue facade and forecourt. The uncovering was part of the creation of the Desmond Tutu Education Center, designed by Beyer Blinder Belle. The reclamation of this end of the Seminary, which includes a handsome garden, is a great gift to Tenth Avenue.
Across 20th Street from the Seminary, the row houses and tenements between the corner buildings on the avenues are set back ten feet. This follows an 1834 agreement between Moore and another prominent landowner and developer, Don Alonso Cushman, according to a New York Times “Streetscapes” article by Christopher Gray.
All of the row houses on the south side of the street have gardens.
The intent of the setback was to enhance real estate value by creating a garden effect, which can be seen in full force in front of the block’s rowhouses. The block’s three central tenements lack gardens but gain a stateliness from the setback. The buildings at either end of the block advance to the normal side-street property lines, facing each other across the street from 60 feet apart; between these end passages, the street widens by way of the garden setback to the south and the campus grounds to the north, creating an unaccustomed effect of mid-block release. This, and the fine character of the buildings and otherworldly beauty of the Seminary campus, make the quiet block a place apart.
The lowered bay within the Donac apartment building’s curve creates the impression that the building is stepping down to the height of its neighbor in the same graceful gesture that finesses the street setback, a masterstroke of suggestion.
Near the east end of the block, the Donac apartment building at #402 negotiates the transition to garden setback by way of a gracefully curved facade. It was commissioned by a daughter of Don Alonso Cushman on land she inherited from him, and built in 1898 to a design by the mansion and apartment house specialist C.P.H. Gilbert.
The building to the right of the Donac, #404, has a plaque reading, “Oldest Dwelling in Chelsea, Frame House with Brick Front, 1830.” Its wood siding is visible in this photo, facing the narrow slot between the buildings. To the right of #404 are the houses of Cushman Row.
The Donac, at rear, sculpts the open space of the block, contributing to a greater whole.
The thoughtfulness and skill of the Donac’s design makes the entire block better in the same gesture that sets it apart as an individual element. Recent buildings have followed its example, enhancing the block’s character without sacrificing uniqueness.
Two of the seven Cushman Row houses retain both their wreathed attic windows and quirky original dormers.
The seven houses at #408-418 were built by Don Alonso Cushman in 1839-40. They make up what is generally considered one of the two best Greek Revival rows in New York, with those of Washington Square. Cushman’s descendants pursued real estate development as well, and a great grandson founded the Cushman & Wakefield real estate services company.
Jack Kerouac and his second wife Joan Haverty lived in an apartment in this two-window wide building for about six months in 1951. A roadster pays homage.
Legend has it that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road at 454 West 20th in three weeks, but it was more likely compiled there from notebooks filled up earlier, and would be polished for years to come. At the end of the book, Sal Paradise (Kerouac) says goodbye to Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) a few blocks east of here, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 20th Street. Just over a block to the west, Kerouac would have found – on the waterfront now occupied by Chelsea Piers - inspiration for the book’s purple final sentence: ”So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it . . .” Kerouac wasn’t the street’s only beat; according to Christopher Gray, the Donac was “home of LeRoi Jones and Hettie Jones in the late 50′s, where Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jr., Ornette Coleman, Frank O’Hara and others mingled at parties.”
The Chelsea Grande apartment building sets back and steps down, at left, bookending the Donac’s transition at the block’s opposite end.
At the west end of the block, Cook+Fox Architect’s Chelsea Grande condominium features exposed steel columns and beams, recalling industrial structures across Tenth Avenue like the High Line. Painted green, the exposed steel surfaces complement the building’s red brick and pay homage to the color scheme of the Seminary buildings across 20th Street.
In the background, the Chelsea Grande’s stepped piers echo the Seminary’s buttresses.
Extending the theme of structural expression, the condominium’s piers narrow as they rise, reflecting the reduced loads that are carried nearer the top of the building. Their stepped shape also relates to the Seminary’s buttresses while giving the building a distinctive appearance. In taking cues from its context, the building both adds to the established character of the neighborhood and borrows a unique flavor from it.
As seen in this view from the High Line, the Chelsea Grande’s narrowing piers also mean smaller windows on lower floors where privacy is a greater concern, giving way to larger ones on upper floors where views take priority. The Seminary’s 130 foot-tall bell tower, modeled on the tower of Magdalen College at Oxford University, is at center.
Chelsea Enclave, a new condominium developed by the Seminary, replaces an undistinguished 1961 campus building at the east end of the block. Some residents will have views directly onto the Seminary’s lush grounds, in the foreground and to the left. A projected glass corner is today’s call-back to the Seminary’s many bay windows.
Polshek Partnership’s Chelsea Enclave apartment building is currently under construction at the west end of the Seminary’s campus. Its brick-faced lower mass matches the height of nearby buildings, fitting it into the neighborhood, while a glassy penthouse seems to float above, set back from the brick facades. This strategy no doubt helped gain the building approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, even though it exceeds the height guidelines of the Chelsea Historic District in which it stands.
Around the block on 21st Street, the Chelsea Enclave picks up the Seminary’s rhythm while staying true to its own time.
The subtlety and intelligence of buildings like the Chelsea Grande and Enclave aren’t coincidental. Developers who build within historic districts know that hiring good architects opens doors at the Landmarks Commission. Extra height, exceeding Historic District guidelines, for example, can be bought in return for design quality. The new buildings on 20th Street’s Seminary block respect and amplify the character of their surroundings without sacrificing the integrity that comes of being true to their own time. Within a district of architectural significance, their independent merit is a critical part of being contextual.
The difference made to a neighborhood by historic district designation is painfully highlighted in the case of the Superior Ink condominium a dozen blocks south in the West Village. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation unsuccessfully lobbied the Landmarks Commission to extend the Greenwich Village Historic District to include the 1919 Superior Ink building, a rare artifact of the area’s industrial past. The absence of designation not only insured the historic building’s demolition, but allowed market forces to substitute Robert A.M. Stern’s hackneyed tower of arched windows and generic period-piece townhouses, witless buildings that might have been designed to go anywhere. Striking a blow for a blander, more anonymous world, buildings like Stern’s displace the real architecture that might otherwise be given a chance.
A 20th Street fire escape just off the High Line park has become a stage for regular musical performances. The High Line came close to being demolished before imaginative individuals saw its potential and beat the odds. The newly opened park is hugely successful, while proving that preservation of even a utilitarian structure can endow a place with the irreplaceable uniqueness of its own history. Along the High Line’s path now lies the greatest concentration of serious new architecture in New York, and possibly the nation. It may just be staking out next century’s most important new historic district. As projects under construction – including the second phase of the park – are completed, increasing numbers of people will visit the area. Some will be lucky enough to discover 20th Street’s Seminary block along the way.