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Renwick Row: Decorating 19th Century Architecture

Often times we don’t know the source of holiday traditions, we just do them, like how we hang mistletoe, or hide a pickle on a Christmas tree. But the Christmas lighting of Renwick Row is one tradition that we know who and when it was started. In 1976, an interior designer decided to decorate his balcony which Renwick Row is noted for. 

On the south side of 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue sits Renwick Row, ten nearly perfectly preserved row houses built between 1856 and 1858 designed by the famed architect James Renwick, Jr. Renwick is also known for his design of St. Patricks Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and Grace Church on Broadway and 11th Street, south of Union Square.

NYPL, 1933

Don Clay was a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College who later went to live in Europe. His study and travels inspired him to work as a cabinet maker, carpenter, and eventually an interior designer. In New York, heavily inspired by architecture, Clay taught at the Parsons School of Design. He was a skilled interior designer and worked with architectural features. 

Clay was so skilled he worked with such notable clients as Tom Wolfe and Diane Von Furstenburg.  He was commissioned to reconstruct the fence that surrounds the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1986. In that same year, from October 1 to October 25, his architectural drawings were on display in the Jefferson Market Courthouse. 

Don Clay with Ruth Wittenberg (the great preservationist and former Community Board 2 landmarks committee chair) courtesy of The Villager, October 11, 1990

Don Clay also became a member of Community Board 2 after he started Christmas lighting on Renwick Row. Clay continued to supervise and direct the ceremony until his death in 1993 at the age of 46 during the peak of the AIDs epidemic.

Invitation, December 15, 1977, The Villager

Clay got the idea to decorate the 207-ft balcony of Renwick Row for Christmas. The decorations drew such a crowd the following year it made it into the paper. In 1977, the Village Singers were present to lead the lighting of the holiday lights. The balconies were wrapped in 900 feet of white pine rope and 1,500 Italian lights. Each house had its own hand-hung teardrop wreath. That year 600 spectators joined. The following year in 1978, the procession grew, and the Village Singers had a sound system to back them up. Spectators were given sheets of music to follow along with the procession. And a tradition was born, which lasted for many years on West 10th Street.

As impressive as the holiday exteriors are of Renwick Row, the interiors are perhaps even more so. To see our historic image archive collections which include interior shots of Renwick Row at the turn of the century, click here. If you have any photos from your visits to the Renwick Row Holiday Lighting, please share them with us!

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