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Guide to the James N. Wells' Sons Records
1700s-1981 (bulk, 1820s-1930s)
 MS 599

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer and Elise Winks

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on September 17, 2021
Finding aid written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

James N. Wells (1790-1860), his descendants, and the real estate firm of James Wells' Sons were central figures in the development of the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City's Manhattan borough. Although the firm of James Wells' Sons did not appear by that name until the 1890s, it traced its existence back to 1819 and its founder, carpenter James Nicholas Wells. (The firm no longer exists after being subsumed by other firms in the late twentieth century.)

By 1817, James Wells was buying property on Vandam and Varick streets and building houses especially, it appears, in what was then the city's 8th Ward, or in what is now the West Village and areas to the east. By 1830 or earlier, Wells was known, perhaps both by professional reputation and by church or religious affiliation, to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863). Known to later generations as the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Moore was a landowner of the family estate known then as "Chelsea," the name that continues to be attached to that area of Manhattan. To at least some extent, Moore consulted with Wells on the disposition of the property. In the end, Moore retained the property and appointed Wells as his agent for handling the development, construction, leasing, and management of Chelsea, as well as of Moore's personal transactions. Wells's business relationships grew beyond Moore, though perhaps because of that reputable connection, to include others, including as agent for Columbia College when it sought to lease its developed properties in what is now midtown Manhattan during the 1840s and 1850s. He had a sufficient reputation that he was a collector for a Building Fund in the early 1830s for the Protestant Episcopal Church of St. Peter's. Part of a sizable family himself, Wells's reach extended in the 1840s to the new town of Matagorda in the independent Republic of Texas, where his son-in-law Abner Lee Clements was involved in building the first Episcopal church in Texas.

Wells died in November 1860. One of his several children, James N. Wells, Jr., was also a carpenter and by that time was likely about 40 years of age. In his will, Wells bequeathed to his son the office and all the things needed to continue the real estate business (see Wells's will in Box 29). Wells, Jr. did so, perhaps in partnership with his father's brother-in-law, William Roome, whose name appears on checks and business correspondence with Wells Jr. through the 1860s. Clement Moore died in 1863, shortly after Wells Sr., leaving his estate to various descendants. With this the Wells-Moore relationship passed into a second generation, with Wells Jr. handling property and other financial matters for various Moore descendants and relations, both for Chelsea holdings and beyond, such as assisting Moore's son, Benjamin (1818–1886), with building a house in Sing Sing, New York (now Ossining).

Wells Jr. died in 1892, and his two sons, James N. Wells III and William J. Wells became the third generation of Wellses in the real estate business. It was at this time that the business then took on the name James N. Wells' Sons, continuing to handle business for the extended Moore descendants and other real estate matters. The Wells family connections ended early in the twentieth century with the death of James Wells III in 1908 and his brother William in 1913. In 1908, William had taken James P. Eadie on as partner. Eadie had joined the firm in 1893, shortly after the death of Wells Jr. With William's death, Eadie continued the business. Among the deals brokered by the firm during Eadie's tenure (on behalf of Clement Moore descendants) was the lease to Henry Mandel in the 1920s that led to the construction of the London Terrace apartment building, one of the largest in the world at the time.

Through multiple generations, the Wells business was run as a sole proprietorship or partnership. Only in 1931 was the firm incorporated under Eadie. And coincidentally or not, it is about this point in time that the collection, which holds primarily documents from the 1810s into the early twentieth century, begins to close, with far fewer documents from the later twentieth century. At some point in the 1930s, the firm changed location, from its building since the 1830s at 191 Ninth Avenue to one at 340 West 23rd Street, the address that successor firms continued to occupy. Eadie ran the business until his death in 1942 and it continued on with a succession of officers with longstanding ties to the firm.

In 1977 James N. Wells' Sons was acquired by another Chelsea real estate operator, Paul E. Gay, though Gay had been in the city and the business only since the 1960s. With the acquisition, the new firm was named Wells & Gay. Gay died in 1989, at which point the building and the business was acquired by realtor Elizabeth Stribling, who had been in the field since 1980. The merged entity was called Stribling, Wells & Gay Associates, and around 2000, the Stribling firm generously donated this collection of historical documents to N-YHS. The Stribling firm was acquired and became part of yet another real estate firm, Compass, around 2019.

(The above note was based on various on-line sources including, among others, the New York Times archive and Wikipedia, and documents in the collection.)