Saturday, April 17, 2010

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park is a nearly 10-acre public park that is a landmark in the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village. An open space with a tradition of nonconformity, the park’s marble Arch and fountain areas have long been popular spots for both residents and tourists. Most of the buildings surrounding the park now belong to New York University, which rents the park for graduation ceremonies and uses the Arch as a symbol. Although NYU considers the park to be the quad of the school's campus, Washington Square remains a public park (click plan image to enlarge).

Located at the foot of Fifth Avenue, the park limits are defined by Waverly Place, West 4th Street, McDougal Street and University Place. In the early 1600s the native Americans who lived here were attacked by the Dutch, who drove them out. By the mid 1600s the Dutch farmers gave this land to slaves, thus freeing them, as a reward for protecting the area from Indian attacks. In 1797 the land, then not part of the city proper, was purchased by the New York Council for use as a public burial ground; during the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1800s, most of the victims were buried here, safely away from town, as a hygienic measure. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square. The cemetery was closed in 1825.

In 1826 the city leveled the area and laid out a public square to be used as a parade ground for use by volunteer militia companies. The streets surrounding the square became one of the city's most desirable residential areas by the 1830s, and the protected row of Greek Revival style row houses on the north side of the park remain from that era. By 1850 the parade ground had been reworked into a public park, and a fountain was added in 1852.

Inspired by Roman triumphal arches, the Washington Square arch, at the southern terminus of Fifth Avenue, celebrates the centennial of George Washington's inauguration. It replaced an 1889 arch, a temporary structure made of wood and stucco. Having met with overwhelming popular approval, McKim Mead & White's original design was rebuilt in marble in 1891, in the fashion of the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Decorated with sculptures of Washington in both his civilian and military guises, this arch became the symbol of a new America devoted to the arts. In the first decades of the 20th century, the West Village became an increasingly bohemian neighborhood, and this arch became a site of artistic and social rebellion.

Many NYC residents are not aware that Fifth Avenue motor traffic passed under the arch until 1958. During the 2007-2009 renovation of the park, the fountain was realigned to be on an axis with Fifth Avenue and the Arch. Because public input was not sought or considered, this recent renovation created much acrimony between the city and area residents.