A Short History Of Washington Square Park

By Emily Kies Folpe, adapted from her book, It Happened on Washington Square

Washington Square in Greenwich Village is one of New York’s most densely-used green spaces. Anchored by Stanford White’s iconic Washington Arch, it is a small park–barely 10 acres–with a long and colorful history. For nearly two centuries the Square has been a place to linger, to play, to celebrate or demonstrate. It functions not only as a public park beloved by locals, but also as a campus green, a crossroads, a performance space and a magnet attracting visitors from around the world.

Early Years

Centuries before there was a park, Indians of the Lenape tribe knew the site as a marshy ground with abundant waterfowl and a fine trout stream called Minetta (long buried).

In 1624, the Dutch West India Company established a trading outpost at the southern tip of Manhattan. To secure enough food for the settlement’s growing population, the director of New Amsterdam freed a number of the African-born slaves in 1642 and granted them plots of land to farm in return for a portion of their crops. Some of the land grants overlapped the site of the future Square. The free black farmers later lost the right to own the land under English rule, and their property was incorporated into large estates owned by English and Dutch landholders.

A Potter’s Field

After the Revolutionary War, the city fathers of New York acquired some of this property for use as a potter’s field, a public burial place where poor and indigent people, mostly victims of yellow fever, were laid to rest. Epidemics continued to ravage New York’s population and after twenty years of use, the potter’s field was filled. Meanwhile city development was fast approaching the site. Pragmatic members of New York’s Common Council determined that the former cemetery would be a good location for a much-needed drilling ground for the city’s volunteer militia companies.  On July 4, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – the former potter’s field was officially declared the Washington Parade Ground. Leveled and landscaped, the new parade ground conferred a privileged status to the area and helped elevate the value of the surrounding real estate.

A Residential Enclave

Within a few years, a prime residential neighborhood had developed around the parade ground. Elegant houses ringed three sides, and on the east stood New York University’s first home – the Gothic Revival Building where Samuel Morse perfected his telegraph and in later years Winslow Homer could be found painting on the roof. The parade ground soon became known as Washington Square, esteemed for its patriotic associations and genteel society.

In his novel, Washington Square (in dramatic form titled The Heiress), Henry James wrote that the Square displayed a “riper, richer, more honorable look – the look of having had something of a social history.” The house he described was his maternal grandmother’s at 18 Washington Square North, which he had visited frequently as a young boy in the 1840s. “I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this part of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has the kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long shrill city.”

The Square In The City

The apparent harmony of the district was shattered when the tensions of the city intruded. A labor riot erupted on the Square when stonecutters protested NYU’s use of prison labor in construction of their building. Ethnic enmities exploded in violent rioting at the nearby Astor Place Opera House, and the volunteer regiment which usually drilled on the parade ground was called in to quell it. During the Civil War, racial hatred and fear fueled the draft riots of 1863, the bloodiest urban conflict in American history. Troops summoned from Gettysburg camped out in the Square to ensure peace in the vicinity.

A Renovation

In 1870, Tammany “Boss” William M. Tweed organized the first Department of Public Parks and set about transforming what was by then a shabby parade ground into a stylishly landscaped park. The Square’s redesign was entrusted to Ignaz Pilate, assisted by Montgomery Kellogg. Both men had worked closely with Frederick Law Olmsted in constructing Central Park. Pilate applied the soft undulating layout of Central Park to the parade ground’s plot, replacing the ruler-straight lines and rigid symmetry appropriate for military reviews with curving pathways outlined by plantings and interrupted by small gathering places.

The Fountain

A fountain on the old ground was demolished and replaced by a fountain from one of the southern entrances to Central Park at 59th Street. The gracious new fountain from uptown, chiseled of graywackie stone with a classically-designed basin, is attributed to Jacob Wrey Mould, an architect who assisted Calvert Vaux with the stonework in Central Park. That same fountain, now fully restored, remains at the heart of the park. And even though the park has been redone since then, elements of the 1870s plan are still evident in today’s Washington Square.

The Washington Centenary Arch

In 1889, the city’s civic and cultural leaders were planning a three-day extravaganza to commemorate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall on Wall Street. To ensure that the Centennial parades would pass near the historic park named for the president, William Rhinelander Stewart of 17 Washington Square North commissioned the architect Stanford White to design a temporary triumphal arch for the occasion. Straddling lower Fifth Avenue a half block north of the park, bedecked with flags and topped by an early wooden statue of Washington, White’s papier-mache and white plaster arch was a sensation. It garnered such praise that at the close of the Centennial, the architect was commissioned to design a permanent version in marble to stand in the park.

For the monument’s design, White looked to Roman models as well as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris built a half-century earlier. While integrating antique elements – allegorical figures, wreaths of laurel, and bands of decorative motifs, White bestowed a distinctly modern clarity and simplicity to a classical form. Frederick MacMonnies executed all the relief sculpture, while Phillippe Martiny designed the huge eagles perched on the Arch’s keystones.

The Washington Arch was formally dedicated on May 4, 1895 and turned over to the city Parks Department. Not until 1916 was the figure of Washington in War by Herman Atkins MacNeil installed on the east pedestal. Two years later, A. Stirling Calder’s Washington in Peace was set in place on the west pedestal.

Twentieth Century Activism

In the years before the First World War, the Washington Square neighborhood was shedding its old skin to emerge as the center of a young bohemian community. Artists, writers and radicals from all over the country were making their way to Greenwich Village and the Square to pursue their art and lend their support to the causes of labor, pacifism, and women’s rights. “O life is a joy to a broth of a boy/ at Forty-two Washington Square,” wrote John Reed.

There were somber moments, too. On March 25, 1911, a disastrous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located one block east of the park, claimed 146 lives, mostly young immigrant women. A week later, thousands of mourners passed through the Square in solemn and tearful processions. In the 1912 Labor Day parade, 20,000 workers – a quarter of them women – marched down Fifth Avenue and through the Arch to rally in the park for better working conditions.

Through the twenties, as real estate values increased around the park, developers moved in to replace many of the century-old houses downtown with tall apartment buildings. Rapid development inevitably destroyed some precious historic relics of the past, but the four residential buildings on the Square’s west side, over time, gained respect as standard-bearers of the 1920s style. Balancing the tall loft buildings on the east of the Square, they form an imposing wall for the great outdoor room that is Washington Square Park.

The Fight Against Robert Moses

Several years later, with the Depression deepening and city resources stretched to meet substantial welfare needs, the park was not faring well. Heavily used and tended sporadically, Washington Square’s lawns were brown, its trees withering and fountain not flowing because the basin leaked so badly. Nevertheless, parades, programs and a busy schedule of community activities continued. Most of the events, like the Square’s semi-annual Outdoor Art Exhibit, begun in 1932, were related to federally-sponsored programs designed to lift morale or boost artists’ incomes. Rundown though it may have been, then as now, Washington Square engendered a fierce loyalty among its users.

In 1935, the Parks Department under Commissioner Robert Moses proposed a comprehensive renovation that would have completely destroyed the park’s integrity as a neighborhood green. In proposing a plan before consulting the local population, Moses, the invincible  “power broker,” unwittingly launched a movement of tenacious civic activism. Each of the successive plans only served to strengthen the neighborhood’s resistance. It became clear that the Commissioner’s goal was to cut a major roadway through the Square to connect Fifth Avenue with lower Manhattan, where he was planning an east-west crossing that would have destroyed the cast-iron district of Soho as well as sections of the old Village.

The interrelated issues of the park’s redesign and traffic in and around the Square continued to plague the neighborhood. Through three decades, committed and canny residents, wise in the ways of organizing and using the press, jousted with Moses and an array of city planners and officials, finally achieving victory in 1958. Ultimately, Greenwich Village was the only community to have vanquished Robert Moses. The park grounds were to be left as they were, and for the first time since the Parks Department had taken it over in 1870, Washington Square was traffic-free.

With roads closed (except for a bus turn-around operating near the Arch until 1963), the central area around the fountain began to flourish as a performance space. Folksingers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan gathered with others around the fountain basin to sing and strum guitars. On nearby lawns, Allen Ginsburg and beat poets recited their works.

Another Renovation

 With the promise of an uninterrupted car-free expanse came the opportunity to rethink what the Square should be. Writing in Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jane Jacobs declared that the park, beloved and valued over so many years, was one of the most successful in the United States, and urged that it be treated tenderly and the reasons for its popularity studied and applied to the field of urban planning.

Over a period of months that stretched to years, the local Community Planning Board No. 2, chaired by Anthony Dapolito, worked with representatives of local organizations to reach some consensus about the Square’s future. At the board’s recommendation, Dapolito appointed a committee of nine Village architects, who, working with the Parks Department, agreed to redo the park.

The effort was led by the poet, protester, playwright and playground builder Robert Nichols, the cofounder of the Judson Poets Theater.  He reconciled divided community preferences from as many people as possible of all ages.  These included his idea for three small mounds, curved seating nooks, a wooden adventure playground, a stage and a petanque court. The greatest change brought about by the 1970 renovation was the opening up of the central area around the fountain to create a large sunken plaza ringed by shade trees. The plaza became the heart of the Village, throbbing with every manner of music and expression.

Arch Conservation

In 2002, a group of citizens and government groups advocated a full restoration and conservation of the Washington Arch.  Funding provided by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the Manhattan Council Delegation under former Council Member Kathryn E. Freed, provided a full reconstruction of the Arch. The work included stabilizing the interior structure and conservation of the fragile exterior marble façade and ornamental reliefs and re-carving President Washington’s right hand, which had been hastily repaired in previous years.  The final element of the restoration of the Arch was the installation of architectural lighting designed by Domingo Gonzalez Associates.  The Arch was rededicated on April 30, 2004, the 215th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration.  The Arch restoration received awards from the Greenwich Village Historical Society and the Lucy Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Recent Renovation

The most recent renovation to Washington Square was completed on June 10, 2014. The first phase included the northwest quadrant and the central plaza and included new and expanded lawns and planting beds, conservation of the Alexander Holley Monument, repaved paths, new benches and lighting. The central display fountain was completely rebuilt and restored in its previous dimensions and is now the focal point of a large central plaza, rebuilt on one level for accessibility. The second phase included an enhanced playground, a stage, petanque courts, a small dog run, a new chess plaza, as well as sitting areas, landscaping, and fencing. The remaining segments of the renovation included a new park house and comfort station, large dog run, play area and expansive lawn.

The goal of Washington Square Park’s renovation was to create a renewed sense of place, with a design by NYC Parks’ Landscape Architect George Vellonakis that restored and upgraded the park’s significant features, while preserving its rich history of diversity.