Copyright Jean-Christophe BENOIST
Washington Square Park, a 9.75-acre (39,500 m2) landmark of Greenwich Village, is one of New York City’s best-known parks. Its landscape is dominated by Washington Square Arch, from which it takes its name, at the northern gateway. Another prominent feature is the fountain.
Most of the surrounding buildings are now NYU property, but were formerly artists’ studios and homes.
The park is at the foot of Fifth Ave., and bordered on all sides by Washington Square. In addition to the massive arch and large central fountain, other features include walking paths, picnic tables, two dog runs, gardens and trees, benches, play areas for kids, memorial statues, and chess and Scrabble tables.
The park was originally divided by a narrow, marshy valley containing Minetta Creek (which is now covered). Sapokanican (Tobacco Field), a Native American village, was nearby in the early 17th century.
Dutch settlers were using the land on both sides for farming by the mid-17th century. They gave this land to their slaves, an act which freed them. However, this wasn’t an altruistic action, as they intended these freed slaves as a buffer against potentially unfriendly Native Americans.
The freed slaves also had to give part of their profits from the land to the Dutch East India Company, and their kids would be born slaves instead of free. This arrangement lasted from 1643–64.
Seventh Regiment on Review, Washington Square, New York, Otto Boetticher, 1851
The area ceased being farmland in April 1797, when it became a potter’s field (i.e., public burial ground) for the poor and unknown. In the early 19th century, this burial ground was also used for yellow fever victims.
At the time, this land wasn’t part of Manhattan, and was thus safely away from the source of contamination.
The cemetery closed in 1825, but the remains were never reinterred elsewhere. Over 20,000 graves are still beneath the park’s grounds. Excavations have found graves dating as far back as 1799.
In spite of an oft-repeated urban legend in many guidebooks, there was only one known public hanging in the burial ground, and the tree was not Hangman’s Elm in the northwest corner. Rose Butler was hanged in 1820 on the eastern side of Minetta Creek.
Hangman’s Elm does have its own storied history, though. At a verified 339 years old, it’s Manhattan’s oldest known tree. It was part of a private farm till the city bought the land and added it to Washington Square in 1827.
Hangman’s Elm, Copyright Srosenstock
After the city bought the land in 1826–27, the square was levelled and laid-out. It initially was the Washington Military Parade Ground, a training-ground for volunteer militia.
The streets around the square were one of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods in the 1830s. This era is attested to in a protected row of Greek Revival houses on the north side.
In 1849–50, the land began taking on its modern park shape. In 1871, under the newly-created NYC Dept. of Parks, it underwent more redesigning.
In 1889, in celebration of George Washington’s inauguration centennial, a large wooden and plaster memorial arch was erected at Fifth Ave., just north of the park. It was so popular, it was replaced by a permanent marble arch in 1892, modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
During the excavations in preparation for the eastern leg, a gravestone, coffin, and human remains dated to 1803 were discovered 10 feet underground.
This arch was designed by infamous architect Stanford White, whose sexual misdeeds with Evelyn Nesbit led to his murder by Evelyn’s husband Harry Thaw in 1906.
Copyright Jess Hawsor
The original fountain was finished in 1852, but replaced in 1872. In 1888, a statue of military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi was unveiled, and a statue of Alexander Lyman Holley followed in 1889. Two statues of Pres. Washington were added in 1918.
The park underwent a number of renovations after Robert Moses became parks commissioner in 1934, but his plan to extend Fifth Ave. through the park and into Soho was thwarted by local activists, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
Alexander Lyman Holley, renowned mechanical engineer and inventor
My Russian characters who settle in Greenwich Village after immigration, and later their kids and grandkids, frequently go to this park. My characters who live in other neighborhoods also sometimes come here.