A Seminary, A Hotel, and SanTa Claus The History of Chelsea

| 25 May 2015 | 02:23

It’s been two years since the High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue opened, and Chelsea residents have been getting used to it ever since. The boutique hotel, with its 19th century red-brick charm, its front garden with tables and chairs and its unusual outdoor coffee truck bearing the word “Intelligentsia,” have become familiar fixtures in the neighborhood.

But do visitors staying in the hotel know that they have something in common with the poem “The Night Before Christmas?”

Until recently, the hotel building (originally a dormitory) was part of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, which still occupies most of the block between West 21st and 22nd streets, between Ninth and Tenth avenues. In the early 1820s, Clement Clarke Moore, wealthy Episcopal layman, donated the land for the seminary.

Moore, who taught Biblical languages at the seminary through 1850, was almost certainly the author of the familiar poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” –better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” The poem, which is largely responsible for our current-day image of Santa Claus, was published anonymously in 1823, and Moore basically acknowledged his authorship when he included it in a book of his own poems in 1844.

According to an article on the seminary by J. Robert Wright in “The Encyclopedia of New York,” the institution grew slowly. The first building on the site, the East Building, was constructed in 1827, followed by the West Building between 1832 and 1836. During the 1840s, the seminary was a center of the “Oxford Movement,” which sought to restore “High Church” traditions to the Episcopal Church.

The imposing Chapel of the Good Shepherd was built in 1888. In 1881, the seminary began issuing doctorates. In 1971, it first admitted women as full-time students, and the following year it issued a statement supporting the ordination of women clergy. Its library contains many rare Bibles, prayer books and theological texts as well as the archives of past Episcopal bishops.

Like many religious institutions, the seminary accumulated substantial debt over the years. In September 2012, according to the an article posted at the time in the seminary’s “GTS News,” it closed on the sale of the building that is now the High Line Hotel to the Brodsky Organization, a developer, and MCR Development, a hotel ownership company.

The sale was part of the seminary’s “Plan to Choose Life” financial initiative. Since 2005, the building had housed guest rooms for the Desmond Tutu Conference Center, most of which is still owned and operated by the seminary. Tutu, the retired South African Anglican bishop known for his fight against apartheid, was once a visiting professor at the seminary.

The High Line Hotel isn’t the only example of change in the seminary’s footprint. In 2005, the institution announced plans to demolish Sherrill Hall, a circa-1960 building that faced Ninth Avenue, and build, in partnership with the Brodsky organization, a 17-story tower. Many in the community objected to the planned building’s height, and a fight ensued.

A compromise was reached, and the Chelsea Enclave, the condo building that replaced Sherrill Hall, is only seven stories high. In the old days, visitors to the seminary could enter on Ninth Avenue; now, they must go around the corner to 21st Street. (This writer still recalls Sherrill Hall’s “Cokesbury Bookstore,” with its logo depicting a 19th century preacher reading a Bible on horseback.)

Nowadays, people staying at the High Line Hotel, as well as Chelsea residents in general, can view the seminary’s scenic inner courtyard, known as the Close, during visiting hours. And, perhaps, when December rolls around, they might feel the urge to recite “The Night Before Christmas.”