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Washington Square

Washington Square

Also known as Washington Square Park

As an iconic area of Greenwich Village, Washington Square has been the focus and battleground of preservation-related controversy throughout the 20th century.

Location: Washington Square, New York, NY  |  Google Maps
Neighborhood: Greenwich Village
People: Anthony Campagna, Henry H. Curran, Gordon J. Davis, Harold D. Fleming, Shirley HayesJane Jacobs, Edith Lyons, William T. Manning, Margaret Mead, Robert Moses, Lewis Mumford, Evelynne Patterson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ray Rubinow, Robert WeinbergPierce Trowbridge Wetter
Organizations: American Institute of Architects, Citizens Union, City Club, Downtown Community Association, Emergency Coalition Organized to Save Washington Square Park, Fine Arts Federation, Friends of Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Joint Committee for the Saving of Washington Square, Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic, Municipal Art Society, New York Society of Landscape Architects, Open Washington Square Park Coalition, Save Washington Square Committee, Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square, Washington Square Association, Washington Square Park Committee, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
Places: Genius Row, Greenwich Village, Rhinelander HousesSailors’ Snug Harbor, Washington Square Arch 
Public Policy: Greenberg v. City of New York
Above: Washington Square, New York, c. 1900 - 1920; Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Before Washington Square Park was built in 1826, the area was used as a burial ground. The north side was a German cemetery, while the south side was a potter’s field. The area was later used as a public gallows and execution grounds. Between 1829 and 1833, a row of houses was built along the north side of the square. These Greek Revival style houses, built of red brick in a Flemish bond, became known as “The Row.” The entrances are flanked by Ionic and Doric columns and have marble balustrades. By the end of the 19th century, the north side of Washington Square continued to attract wealthy and leading citizens, while the south side was populated with immigrants living in tenement houses. The buildings are architecturally rich and historically significant, and give the neighborhood its unique and distinct character.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Greenwich Village as an historic district in 1969. In addition, the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square has been designated a New York City Landmark. Washington Square continues to be a hotbed of preservation activity and controversy.

1926: The Joint Committee for the Saving of Washington Square announces a campaign to seek height limits in order to preserve the low scale residential character of buildings around Washington Square Park

1935: Moses proposes to reroute traffic from the park onto a one-way circular drive around it

1936: Sailors’ Snug Harbor, one of the largest owners of land in Greenwich Village, announces a plan to demolish several of the structures facing the north side of Washington Square, east of Fifth Avenue. These structures that lined this block were commonly referred to as "The Row."

1939: Sailors' Snug Harbor decides to retain the architectural character of "The Row"

1939: Robert Moses revisits the Washington Square Plan and informs the local opposition that if his plan is not approved, then Washington Square would fall to the bottom of the Parks Department's priority list

1939: The Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square formed to take up the battle against Moses's redesign plan

1940: The press reports that Moses’s plan had been "postponed indefinitely”

1944: The Washington Square Association launches a planning effort intended "to preserve the residential character of the Washington Square and Greenwich Village sections of Manhattan"

December 1944: Apartment house developers plan to demolish the Rhinelander Houses

1945: The immediate threat to the Rhinelander Houses subsides, though their future remains uncertain

1946: An expanding New York University announces its plan to construct a law center facing Washington Square, posing a significant threat to the buildings on Washington Square South 

1947: Robert Moses proposes the "Rogers Plan"

1947: Villagers such as Bishop William T. Manning engage in efforts to save "Genius Row"

1948: Despite efforts to save "Genius Row" the houses on this block are demolished

1949: The NYU Law Center was constructed, and replaces the last remaining block of artist’s housing on Washington Square South

1949: New York University begins negotiations with Sailors’ Snug Harbor to acquire a wide area northeast of Washington Square

January 25, 1949: NYU begins evicting tenants from this area’s buildings

1950-1951: Villagers engage in failed efforts to save the Rhinelander Houses

1952: Robert Moses announces a new redesign plan for Washington Square

1958: Ray Rubinow, Jane Jacobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, and Lewis Mumford form The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic (JEC)

May 1958: The JEC launches a petition campaign and throws a park rally in support of closing Washington Square Park to traffic

October 23, 1958: The Board of Estimate passes a resolution to authorize a temporary closing of the park to traffic

April 1959: The Board of Estimate approves a policy statement for Washington Square Park, stating that the park was now closed to all but emergency vehicles

1963: The Board of Estimate completes the legal process to forever clear the park from traffic

1969: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designates Greenwich Village as an historic district

1970: Washington Square Park is renovated by the community

1982: Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis announces that a redesign plan was in the works for Washington Square

1991: The renovation of Washington Square Arch begins

2004: The Parks Department proposes a $16 million redevelopment plan for Washington Square Park that includes extensive layout and landscape changes

May 2005: The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approves the Parks Department's 2004 redesign plan

May 2006: The court hearing for the case Greenberg v. City of New York is held. The court rules against the Parks Department and in favor of Washington Square Park.

March 2007: The Greenberg decision is overturned in the Appellate Court

As an iconic area of Greenwich Village, Washington Square has been the focus and battleground of preservation related controversy throughout the 20th century. Washington Square's park, unique character, and historic architecture continue to make it a center for preservation activity.1

One of the biggest preservation struggles in Washington Square from the 1930s through the 1960s involved the issue of traffic in Washington Square Park. Prior to World War II, newly appointed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses planned to implement a redesign of Washington Square Park. The central issue addressed in Moses's plan was the problem of traffic. In 1935, Moses proposed to reroute traffic from the park onto a one-way circular drive around it. The realistic implication of his plan was that the streets surrounding the park would need to be widened, and thus would require pedestrians to cross a wide stream of traffic to access the park. Robert Moses's plan, which was commonly referred to as "The Bathmat Plan," exacerbated the tension between the Greenwich Village community and the Parks Department, because he did not attempt to consult the local population.2 As part of his plan, Moses also proposed a formal landscape treatment, a change requiring the removal of a number of the park’s historic trees.3 In 1939, Moses revisited the Washington Square Plan and informed the local opposition that if his plan was not approved, then Washington Square would fall to the bottom of the Parks Department's priority list. The Washington Square Association ended up approving Moses's proposal.4 By 1939, the Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square, led by consulting engineer and Village resident Pierce Trowbridge Wetter, formed to take up the battle against Moses's redesign plan. Henry H. Curran and architect Robert C. Weinberg, worked with Wetter on this effort. Several civic organizations joined the 1939 battle against Robert Moses's redesign plan, including the Municipal Art Society, Fine Arts Federation, New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the New York Society of Landscape Architects, City Club, and Citizens Union.5

In 1940, the press reported that Moses’s plan had been "postponed indefinitely."6 However, in the 1940s, Villagers once again engaged in a skirmish with Robert Moses regarding traffic in Washington Square Park. In 1947, Moses proposed the "Rogers Plan." In the "Rogers Plan," Moses expressed his intention to re-route traffic around the park. The plan also called for the removal of the park's fountain for the addition of a "turn-out" area in the central section of the park that would contain eight to ten buses at a time.7

By the 1950s, the battle over traffic in Washington Square became more intense. In 1952, Robert Moses announced a new redesign plan. This time, he intended to construct two roads, each 38 feet wide, that would flank the Washington Square Arch and run through the park. He also proposed to construct new playgrounds, south of the Arch, between the two roads. Greenwich Village residents (and "park mothers") Shirley Hayes and Edith Lyons organized the Washington Square Park Committee to oppose Moses's plan. Hayes shifted the debate over road width to one successfully questioning the need for any road at all.8 The Washington Square Park Committee mobilized the opposition, created a petition, and gathered 4,000 signatures. The Board of Estimate shelved Moses's proposal.9

However, Robert Moses was determined to construct a major roadway through the park, and the battle waged on. Moses reasoned that a roadway would increase the park's "functionality" by connecting Washington Square North and Washington Square South. He was also motivated by his intention to create a Fifth Avenue South address for the buildings to be constructed in the redevelopment area south of Washington Square in order to increase real estate values. Moses may also have been driven to construct a roadway through the Park in order to advance his plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway.10 In 1958, Ray Rubinow, a foundation consultant, along with other notable individuals such as Jane Jacobs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and Lewis Mumford, formed The Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic (JEC).11 The JEC launched a petition campaign, and threw special events (such as a park rally in May 1958) and obtained support from politico Carmine de Sapio.12 On October 23, 1958, the Board of Estimate passed a resolution to authorize a temporary closing of the Park to traffic. In April 1959, the Board of Estimate approved a policy statement for Washington Square Park, stating that the park was closed to all but emergency vehicles. Finally, in 1963, the Board of Estimate completed the legal process to forever clear the park from traffic.13

In addition to the battle over traffic in Washington Square Park, Washington Square has also had many battles to preserve its buildings, going all the way back to the 1920s. The first attempt at this preservation was when in 1926 the Joint Committee for the Saving of Washington Square announced a campaign to seek height limits in order to preserve the low scale residential character of buildings around the park.14

The buildings of Washington Square began to be seriously threatened with demolition by the 1930s. In 1936, Sailors’ Snug Harbor, one of the largest owners of land in Greenwich Village, announced a plan to demolish several of the structures facing the north side of Washington Square, east of Fifth Avenue. The structures that lined this block were commonly referred to as "The Row." Several civic organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, opposed Sailors' Snug Harbor's plans to demolish "The Row." In 1939, Sailors' Snug Harbor decided to retain the architectural character of "The Row."15

After World War II, Villagers found themselves engaged in a continuous battle with Robert Moses. They also faced the impending threats posed by the construction of out-of-scale apartment buildings, as well as the ever-expanding New York University.16 In 1944, the Washington Square Association launched a planning effort intended "to preserve the residential character of the Washington Square and Greenwich Village sections of Manhattan." Architect and planner Arthur Holden produced The Washington Square Association’s plan. In a 101-page report, the Association called for the protection of "historic and picturesque buildings;" however, neither the plan, nor the Association, possessed the legal authority to do so.17 In December 1944, apartment house developers planned to demolish the Rhinelander Houses, located on the northern edge of Washington Square Park, west of Fifth Avenue. The immediate threat to the houses abated in 1945, though their future remained uncertain.18 From 1950 through 1951, Villagers engaged in failed efforts to save the Rhinelander Houses. Developers constructed a 360-family apartment building on this site. The apartment house's exterior was intended to blend harmoniously with the surrounding architecture.19

Another preservation battle over Washington Square’s buildings involved New York University's new law school library. In 1946, an expanding New York University announced its plan to construct a law center facing Washington Square, posing a significant threat to the buildings on Washington Square South.20 As a result of this, the Save Washington Square Committee was formed, under the leadership of Harold D. Fleming. The Save Washington Square Committee petitioned New York University. The Greenwich Village Historical Society also joined the effort to oppose the construction of the law library. In 1949, the NYU Law Center was constructed, and replaced the last remaining block of artist’s housing on Washington Square South.21

While the controversy over the law school center was occurring, developer Anthony Campagna began the process of evicting tenants in order to clear the block between Thompson Street and West Broadway. This historic block, commonly dubbed the "Genius Row" or "Red Row," featured a row of red brick homes. The jewel of the block, No. 61 Washington Square South, was known as the "House of Genius." This structure had functioned for years as a "rooming house" for musical and cultural artists who passed through the area. Notable guests included O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, Steven Crane, Willa Cather, and John Dos Passos.22 In 1947, Villagers, such as Bishop William T. Manning engaged in efforts to save the "Red Row." In 1948, despite efforts to save the row, the houses on this block were ultimately demolished. Anthony Campagna then sold the site to New York University, exacerbating the tension between Village residents and the University.23 In 1949, New York University began negotiations with Sailors’ Snug Harbor to acquire a wide area northeast of Washington Square.24 By January 25, 1949, the University began evicting tenants from this area’s buildings.25

Throughout the 1950s, Washington Square continued to be a preservation battleground.26 However, it was not until 1969 that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Greenwich Village as an historic district. In 1970, Washington Square Park was renovated by the community. In 1982, Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis announced that a redesign plan was in the works for Washington Square. The plan sought to convert the sunken plaza area into its pre-1970 state of grassy land. Several groups, such as Friends of Washington Square Park, founded by Evelynne Patterson, arose to oppose this change. The redesign plan was rejected. In 1991, the renovation of Washington Square Arch began.

The history of preservation in Washington Square continues to the present day. In 2004, the Parks Department proposed a $16 million redevelopment plan, which included extensive layout and landscape changes. According to the plan, the fountain would be relocated 20 feet to the east, to be aligned with the Washington Square Arch; the sunken plaza around the fountain would be raised to street level; and the northwest corner of the park would be landscaped. Also, the park’s two dog runs would be relocated, new play areas would be constructed, and a three-foot high fence would line the park's perimeter. Community Board 2 backed the plan, but several interest groups formed to contest specifics of the redesign plan. The Washington Square Park Task Force, Community Board 2 Parks Committee, The Open Washington Square Park Coalition, and the Emergency Coalition Organized to Save Washington Square Park, all opposed sections of the plan. In May 2005, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the Parks Department's 2004 redesign plan.27 However, in May 2006, a court hearing, Greenberg v. City of New York, resulted in the court ruling against the Parks Department and in favor of Washington Square Park. The court held that, intentionally or not, the Parks Department concealed drastic changes to the park’s fountain and plaza area and misled Community Board 2, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the Arts Commission of the City of New York into approving its new design. Despite this, in March 2007, the Greenberg decision was overturned in the Appellate Court. Today, Washington Square and Washington Square Park continues to be a source of preservation related controversy.28

Furthermore, the following associations and societies have been related to the preservation of Washington Square: Downtown Community Association, Friends of Washington Square Park (1980s); Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; Joint Emergency Committee to Close Washington Square Park to Traffic; Open Washington Square Park Coalition (2007); Save Washington Square Committee (1930s battle); Volunteer Committee for the Improvement of Washington Square (1930s battle); Washington Square Association; Washington Square Park Committee (1950s battle); Emergency Coalition Organized to Save Washington Square Park (2007 Battle).

  • Washington Square Association, Inc., 1908-1979 Records
    New York University Archives
    Bobst Library
    70 Washington Square South
    New York, NY 10012
    Tel: (212) 998-2500

  • Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Archive
    Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
    232 East 11th Street
    New York, NY 10003
    Tel: (212) 475-9585

  • Shirley Hayes Papers
    New-York Historical Society
    170 Central Park West
    New York, NY 10024
    Tel: (212) 873-3400 ex. 265
    Fax: (212) 875-1591

  • Access to the Shirley Hayes Papers is open to qualified researchers only, and permission to quote from the collection in a publication must be requested and granted in writing. A finding aid, created by Tiffany Schureman, is available at the New-York Historical Society.

    Greenwich Village historic district designation report (New York 1969) (signed by Commissioners)
    Avery Library, 300 Avery
    Columbia University
    1172 Amsterdam Avenue MC0301
    New York, NY 10027

  • Oral History with Whitney North Seymour, Jr.
  • New York Preservation Archive Project
  • 174 East 80th Street
  • New York, NY 10075
  • Tel: (212) 988-8379
  • Email: [email protected]
  1. ”Summary by Keiko Cervantes,” New York Environmental Law and Justice Project 26 February 2016.
  2. Emily 
Kies Folpe, It Happened on Washington Square (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pages 280-283.
  3. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 170.
  4. 
”Park Plan Voted by Washington Square,” The New York Times, 11 October 1939.
  5. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 170.
  6. 
”Moses Drops Plan for Village Park-Residents of Washington Square Section Conducted Long Fight on $600,000 Project,” The New York Times, 29 February 1940.
  7. 
Lindsay Miller, “Whose Park is it Anyway? The Evolution of Preservation Advocacy, Case Study: Washington Square Park,” Unpublished thesis. Columbia University, May 2007, page 48.
  8. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 183.
  9. 
Ibid, 182.
  10. 
Ibid, 183.
  11. 
”New Group Pledges Fight Against Washington Square Road,” New York Post, 28 March 1958.
  12. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 183.
  13. Lindsay 
Miller, “Whose Park is it Anyway? The Evolution of Preservation Advocacy, Case Study: Washington Square Park,” Unpublished thesis. Columbia University, May 2007, page 62
  14. 
”Move to Preserve Washington Square,” The New York Times, 27 April 1926.
  15. 
”The Row,” The New York Times, 3 May 1939.
  16. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 173.
  17. 
”Plan is Outlined for Village Area,” The New York Times, 1 October 1946.
  18. 
”Fight N.Y.U. Building on Washington Square,” The New York Times, 24 September 1947.
  19. John A. 
Bradley, “New 19-Story Village Apartment to Have Old-Style Front on Square,” The New York Times, 4 March 1951.
  20. 
”Fight N.Y.U. Building on Washington Square,” The New York Times, 24 September 1947.
  21. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 175.
  22. 
”Villagers Strive to Save Landmark,” The New York Times, 13 December 1947.
  23. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 176.
  24. 
Richard H. Parke, “N.Y.U. Seeks to Add a Wide Area Northeast of Washington Square,” The New York Times, 11 January 1949.
  25. 
Richard H. Parke, “N.Y.U. Will Start Evictions Today,” The New York Times, 25 January 1949.
  26. 
Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 182.
  27. Lindsay 
Miller, “Whose Park is it Anyway? The Evolution of Preservation Advocacy, Case Study: Washington Square Park,” Unpublished thesis. Columbia University, May 2007, page 143.
  28. ”Summary by Keiko Cervantes,” New York Environmental Law and Justice Project 26 February 2016.