Beyond the Village and Back: Cushman Row, 408-418 West 20th Street
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to our neighborhoods.
Along with the houses on Washington Square North, Chelsea’s ‘Cushman Row’ at 408-418 West 20th Street is frequently noted as the finest row of Greek Revival residences in New York City. Like “the Row” on Washington Square, their elegant beauty is accentuated by their positioning facing a square (in this case ‘Chelsea Square,’ the campus of the General Theological Seminary) at the heart of their historic district, in this case the Chelsea Historic District. But Cushman Row’s connections to Greenwich Village extend far deeper than a mere rivalry over which is the true exemplar of the architectural style which defined much of early 19th century New York. In fact, Chelsea’s most elegant row of houses might never have even come to be were it not for Greenwich Village.
About Cushman Row
Cushman Row, located between 9th and 10th Avenues, is named for its builder, Don Alonzo Cushman (the initials “DONAC” appear over the entryway to the 5-story 1897 apartment building at 402 West 20th Street, which overlooks Cushman Row, memorializing his role in developing the block).
Cushman was descended from some of the earliest European settlers of this country; his ancestor Robert Cushman landed at Plymouth in 1621 on The Fortune, the second ship to reach that colony after the Mayflower. Born in 1792, he came to New York City from Upstate New York as a young man to make his fortune. He ran a successful dry goods business on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. He would meet Clement Clarke Moore, the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas (“Twas the Night Before Christmas”), whose family owned the neighborhood today known as Chelsea. The area had been Moore’s family’s bucolic estate, but the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan laid out a regularized street grid across today’s Chelsea, sealing its fate to transform from country to city. Cushman would also meet James N. Wells, a real estate developer whom Moore would work with to develop Chelsea into rows of fine brick homes.
Cushman’s friends Wells and Moore would go on to shape the development of much of Chelsea in their own vision, as an entirely new neighborhood, part of the northward march of New York City. The two established both rigorous and sophisticated standards for all new construction in the neighborhood, to ensure that only the highest quality development characterized Chelsea — stables and rear buildings were prohibited, while tree planting, fireproof materials, and large front and rear yards were required.
Seeing the potential in Moore and Wells’ work and in the newly-emerging neighborhood, Cushman decided to kick it up a notch, and build what would be Chelsea’s finest row of houses. Moore and Wells were selling lots to be developed in the neighborhood, and Cushman purchased several on the south side of 20th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in 1834. Working within but going beyond the constraints imposed by his friends Moore and Wells, Cushman began work in 1839, and by 1840 had developed his row in not only the most fashionable and up-to-date architectural style of the day, but with amenities that would be the envy of most New Yorkers.
Set ten feet back from the property line, Cushman’s houses had deep front yards marked by exquisitely-detailed iron fences and gates, crowned with anthemia and palmettes. The stoops had elaborate candelabrum newels, with basement entrances deeply recessed under their broad brownstone steps. The stoops led to deep brownstone temple-like entryway enframements, set within elegant running bond brick facades. This was topped by the classic Greek Revival low attic, covered in a wide fascia board pierced with small attic windows, encircled by carved wooden wreaths. The dentilled cornice was itself topped by tall chimneys and two small dormers – unusual for Greek Revival houses.
What Cushman created was called by the Landmarks Preservation Commission “[t]he outstanding feature of this street, and of the Chelsea Historic District” and “one of the most splendid and best preserved uniform rows of town houses in New York City.” Chelsea and especially the area around Cushman Row have experienced ups and downs over the years: 9th Avenue was shadowed by a noisy elevated train from 1868 to 1940, dangerous freight trains ran down Tenth Avenue, to be replaced by the only slightly less onerous overhead freight rail line which ran just west of the avenue (abandoned in 1980, it was pedestrianized and re-opened as The High Line in the early 2000s), and huge swaths of the neighborhood were demolished in the mid-20th century for ‘urban renewal.’ But Cushman Row itself has remained remarkably intact and admired. Though many of the houses were converted to apartments, interior details were often retained, and the exteriors changed little considering the nearly 200 years of flux and churn going on around them. Today, they are among the most sought after residences in Chelsea.
The Greenwich Village Connection
So what’s the Greenwich Village connection for Chelsea’s most iconic and treasured row of houses? It might almost be easier to say what isn’t the Greenwich Village connection. All three figures responsible for the creation of Cushman Row — Cushman himself, Moore, and Wells — not only lived in, but owed much of their fortune or renown to, Greenwich Village.
Don Alonzo Cushman
Cushman moved to Hudson Street in Greenwich Village in 1815, after he married and achieved success with his Pearl Street dry goods business. It was in many ways the rapid growth and expanding popularity of Greenwich Village at this time, which was transforming from rural hamlet to urban neighborhood, which inspired Cushman to look north to Chelsea for a real estate venture. Cushman saw the increasing interest in high quality homes in bucolic neighborhoods at the edge of the city, and realized both that the demand was there and that soon Greenwich Village would no longer be able to satisfy it, as it became increasingly crowded with development.
Around 1833 Cushman retired from his dry goods business and dedicated himself to his real estate interests, with a focus on Chelsea. Ironically, Cushman’s ability to change in focus was a direct outgrowth of exactly the factors which were transforming Greenwich Village and made him interested in the greener pastures to the north.
An 1832 cholera epidemic sent New Yorkers of means fleeing to the north. This led to the rapid development of Greenwich Village, and the rapid growth in need for services there like banks.
Sensing this hole in the market, in 1833 Cushman and a few other astute businessmen met to found the Greenwich (for Greenwich Village) Savings Bank, in the recently-opened Northern Dispensary at Waverly Place and Grove Street. The venture was one of the first savings banks in New York State, and the first and for some time only one in Greenwich Village. Cushman located the bank near his home, in the first floor of a rowhouse at 10 Carmine Street, near what was then the beginning of Sixth Avenue. The rapid growth of the neighborhood fueled their expansion just a year later into neighboring 12 Carmine Street. As Greenwich Village and the bank grew, in 1839 they moved around the corner to 11 Sixth Avenue, the thoroughfare upon which they would remain well into the 20th century, gradually moving north. The bank remained headquartered in Greenwich Village until 1854 when, like Cushman, it moved to Chelsea, on the southeast corner of 16th Street and Sixth Avenue.
This was not, however, the end of the Greenwich Savings Bank’s connection to Greenwich Village. In 1952 they constructed a streamlined classicizing bank building at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. Though by 1981 the Greenwich Savings Bank had ceased operations, the memory of its operations at his corner lingered on until quite recently, with a painted sign on an adjacent building advertising its location there. Both the bank building and the sign were obliterated in 2020 when a large new residential and commercial structure replaced the former structure and covered over where the sign had long remained.
It was the success of his Greenwich Savings Bank in Greenwich Village that allowed Cushman to turn to real estate opportunities in less-developed Chelsea, and to finance his signature row.
James N. Wells
But it was also Greenwich Village where Cushman met both Moore and Wells, allowing him to partner with them for this development. Until at least 1832, Wells was a neighbor of Cushman’s on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, living above his office at no. 383 near Houston Street, and later at No. 487, which still survives today on the property of St. Luke’s in the Field Church. It was also in Greenwich Village where Wells met Clement Clarke Moore, with whom he would partner on the development of his family’s former estate, Chelsea.
Clement Clarke Moore
During this time period, Moore’s primary residence was in Greenwich Villlage, at the corner of Charlton and MacDougal Streets (he listed his “summer” residence as his parent’s former estate in Chelsea until 1835, when that became his primary residence). And while Moore may be better known as the father of Chelsea, he was also arguably a savior to Greenwich Village, and much more.
Moore was a deeply religious man, and a generous beneficiary to the Episcopal Church. He was intimately involved with the construction in 1822 of St. Luke’s in the Field Church at Hudson and Grove Street – the very first church built in Greenwich Village, and the first outpost of Trinity Church this far north. Wells was a carpenter-builder who worked on construction of the church. Moore looked so favorably upon the job Wells did there that he took him on as an advisor for the development of Chelsea upon which he was embarking, launching Wells’ career as a builder.
Moore not only lived and built the first church in Greenwich Village. He anonymously authored (but later admitted to writing) a 60-page pamphlet arguing against extending the Commissioner’s Plan’s orthogonal street grid into Greenwich Village. At this time the Village had its own quirky grid of Hudson River-oriented streets with a smattering of houses upon them, which would have been destroyed if the plan was extended through the area. His arguments were persuasive enough that the grid stopped at the east side of Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, preserving the meandering streets for which the neighborhood gained such renown (ironically, Moore was unable to save Chelsea, his family’s own beloved estate, from the same fate).
Moore’s final Greenwich Village connection goes to the heart of what is his most widely recognized legacy. A Visit From St. Nicholas shaped the modern concept and image of Santa Claus perhaps more than any other single source. Moore wrote it for his six children on Christmas Eve, 1822, on a sleigh ride through Greenwich Village en route to purchase a turkey. While the exact source of the image of the joyous, bearded, gift-giving St. Nicholas are not clear, some say Moore was inspired by the sleigh’s bearded driver that evening. Others say it was Moore’s portly neighbor on MacDougal Street. All seem to agree, however, that whatever the inspiration, it struck him as he was driving on a sleigh through the snow-covered streets of Greenwich Village. And that inspiration will forever inextricably link Moore, and Cushman Row, to Greenwich Village.