Looking for remnants of Paisley Place, a lost row of back houses in Chelsea

Like many downtown neighborhoods, Chelsea has its share of back houses—a second smaller house or former carriage house built behind a main home and accessed only by an often hidden alleyway.

Now imagine not just one back house but an entire row of them forming a community where a group of people lived and worked for decades, almost locked within a city block. That’s kind of the story of Paisley Place, which got it start after yellow fever hit New York City in October 1822.

With an epidemic raging, city residents fled. “The banker closed his doors; the merchant packed his goods; and churches no longer echoed words of divine truth,” stated Valentine’s Manuel of 1863. “Many hundreds of citizens abandoned their homes and accustomed occupations, that they might seek safety beyond the reach of pestilence, putting their trust in broad rivers and green fields.”

A good number of these fleeing residents relocated to the village of Greenwich, putting down roots there and transforming it into an urban part of the city within a few decades.

Southampton Road making its way through Chelsea on the John Randel survey map from 1811

One group of immigrant artisans—Scottish-born weavers who carved out a niche by supplying New York with hand-woven linens—went a little farther north. These tradesmen and their families set up a new community in today’s Chelsea off a small country lane called Southampton Road. (above map).

“A convenient nook by the side of this quiet lane was chosen by a considerable number of Scotch weavers as their place of retirement from the impending dangers,” according to Valentine’s. “They erected their modest dwellings in a row, set up their frames, spread their webs…and gave their new home the name ‘Paisley Place.'”

This 1857-1862 street map shows a row of three houses in the middle of the block marked “weavers.”

Southampton Road, which once wound its way from about West 14th Street and Eighth Avenue to West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, soon ceased to exist as Chelsea urbanized and conformed to the street grid. The houses of Paisley Place then became “buried in the heart of the block between 16th and 17th Streets and Sixth and Seventh Avenues,” wrote the Evening World.

Through the decades, the weavers carried out their trade. Paisley Place consisted of “a double row of rear wooden houses entered by alleys at 115-117 West 16th Street and 112-114 West 17th Street,” per The Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1905.

A similar map also from 1857-1862 marks another back house with “weaver”

More is known about their houses than the weavers themselves. “The little colony mingled only slightly with the scores of other nationalities of early New York,” stated another Evening World piece.

By the 1860s, the weavers became something of a curiosity, the subject of newspaper articles and magazine sketches. After 1900 the people of Paisley Place were gone; they either died or moved on when their hand-weaving skills were no longer needed in the era of industrialization.

Their homes hidden inside a modern city block held on a little longer. “The Scotch weavers are gone, but the houses which they built still hold their long accustomed place on the line of the vanished Southampton Road,” stated a Brooklyn Standard Union article from 1902.

17th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

The writer of the Standard Union article noted that two remaining wooden houses had a “quaint picturesqueness [that] was of a sort to warm the heart of the antiquarian.”

Today, 17th Street doesn’t seem to carry any traces of this former community, and no remnants remain of the wood houses that would be in the middle of this tightly packed block. This antiquarian, however, wishes that something of their lives was left behind.

[Top image: Valentine’s Manual, NYPL; second image: John Randel survey map; third and fourth images: NYPL]

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8 Responses to “Looking for remnants of Paisley Place, a lost row of back houses in Chelsea”

  1. Ty Says:

    I lived in a Chelsea back house on 16th Street between 7th and 8th throughout the 90s. It was dark, the stairs were crooked, bricks fell out of the facade, the super was so drunk he listed to starboard most of the day and the landlord mr kissling kept his mother in the basement.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Using Google Space, I think a reader found your back house! If it was restored, it could command a pretty high rent these days. Minus the mother in the basement.

  2. B Says:

    One of those 17th St houses is still there, hidden behind a store front. It was a store for 15 years or so until the merchant moved his jewelry business a few doors east.
    The property is behind a for-rent store front. There is an ally to access the little house that is adjacent to store front.

    I had the privilege of working in the house for 6 months and loved the ambiance as did our customers. It was a vintage/antique shop.

    I have some pix of it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Ah yes, I answered Ann’s comment and described this former antique business back house. I loved browsing here, and the ambiance as you say was wonderful. But I’m not sure it’s the same back house as Paisley Place—my recollection of the antique shop back house was that it was more like a traditional carriage house.

  3. Ann haddad Says:

    I remember visiting an old antique shop that was in a back house on perhaps 17th Street.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I think I know that antique shop; there was a front store with jewelry, and then you walked back through a courtyard to a rear building that had furniture and larger items. I believe they closed but relocated the smaller front shop merchandise to a nearby location. It was very charming!

  4. Paul Hartnett Says:

    I love these stories about long vanished streets, people and neighborhoods of old New York. Im guessing that digging in the backyards might yield artifacts of the Paisley Street settlement.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, exactly—we’ll have to wait a long time though, since I can’t imagine the people living in the lovely apartment surrounding this block would tolerate the digging!

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