Spring Views: Washington Square Park, New York

Washington Square Park is a 9.75-acre public park in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City. One of the best known of New York City’s public parks, it is an icon as well as a meeting place and center for cultural activity.

It is named for George Washington (1732-1799), the commander of the Continental Army, who was inaugurated in New York City as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. 

The land was once a marsh fed by Minetta Brook located near an Indian village known as Sapokanikan. In 1797 the City’s Common Council acquired the land for use as a “Potter’s Field” and for public executions, giving rise to the legend of the “Hangman’s Elm” in the park’s northwest corner.

Used first as the Washington Military Parade Ground in 1826, the site became a public park in 1827. Following this designation, prominent families, wanting to escape the disease and congestion of downtown Manhattan, moved into the area and built the distinguished Greek Revival mansions that still line the square’s north side. In 1838 the park hosted the first public demonstration of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse.

Soon after the creation of the City’s Department of Public Parks in 1870, the square was redesigned and improved by M.A. Kellogg, Engineer-in-Chief, and I.A. Pilat, Chief Landscape Gardener. Their plan followed the principles of Fredrick Law Olmsted – providing a more rustic and informal space with curvilinear paths along its periphery, retaining many of the diagonal paths within the park’s core, and defining plots of grass with shade trees. The most dramatic change was the addition of a carriage drive through the park’s interior connecting Fifth Avenue to Lower Manhattan.

The marble Washington Arch, designed by noted architect Stanford White, was built between 1890-1892 and replaced a wooden arch erected in 1889 to honor the centennial of the first president’s inauguration. Statues of Washington were later installed on Arch’s north side – Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor (1916) by Hermon MacNeil, and Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice (1918) by Alexander Stirling Calder. 

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