By Bart Boehlert
On Christmas Eve, children near and far will delight in having read to them the classic holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas,” which was first published in 1823. It since has become one of the best known poems in the English language and been translated into many more languages around the world but its origins are in New York City. The perennial favorite was written by Clement Clarke Moore who lived at 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue on his family estate, which was called Chelsea.
Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of languages and biblical learning, inherited his family’s large property that was mostly countryside when the city only extended up to Houston Street. The professor’s father was Bishop Benjamin Moore, who was the president of Columbia College and administered communion to Alexander Hamilton on his deathbed in 1804. After he inherited the estate of Chelsea, Clement Clarke Moore became wealthy subdividing and selling lots.
On December 24, 1822, while on a sleigh ride to Greenwich Village to pick up a Christmas turkey, Moore wrote his holiday poem about jolly Saint Nick and read it to his six enchanted children that night. It first appeared in print one year later on December 23, 1923, upstate in the Troy Sentinel newspaper under the title “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” A friend of Moore’s had sent the text to the paper and it was published anonymously. Later Clement Clarke Moore said that the roly-poly St. Nicholas was inspired by a plump man who worked on his farm. Indeed, the poem came to define how Santa Claus is pictured today – a round, merry, magical fellow traveling by eight flying reindeer and arriving via the chimney to deliver gifts for children.
Clement Clarke Moore donated the apple orchard on his Chelsea estate to the Episcopal diocese for the site of the General Theological Seminary, which occupies a full city block from Ninth Avenue to Tenth Avenue between 21st and 20th Streets. Gothic style brick buildings and a chapel were constructed around a grassy green lawn. Today the Seminary blocks on West 21st and West 20nd Streets still retain the peace and quiet of old New York.
Across the street from the Seminary where Clement Clarke Moore was a professor, Brown Harris Stevens is now offering 451 West 21st Street, which would have been part of Moore’s parcel. The Italianate townhouse is a single-family home that features five floors of living space plus a garden and a roof deck complete with an outdoor shower. Inside there are four bedrooms, three and a half baths, three wood-burning fireplaces, a media room, a gym, and a chef’s kitchen besides the family kitchen. The author of “The Night Before Christmas” is still remembered in the neighborhood; from the rooftop deck of the townhouse, one can see children playing below at Ninth Avenue and 22nd Street in the Clement Clarke Moore Park.