Friday, February 3, 2012

NYU Releases Trove Of Historic Washington Square Park Photos

“Cars, Washington Square Park, Aerial View,” circa 1960-1969  (Photo: Bobst Library/NYU)


The NYU Archives in Bobst Library has just released the entire archive of its Washington Square Park and Washington Square Area Image Collection, which holds hundreds of fascinating photos of our neighborhood dating from 1850 to 1990, according to NYULOCAL.

We applaud NYU for digitizing the collection, as it is clear that computers are the way of the future. Use the photos to procrastinate at your leisure, or enjoy our annotated selection below.

This aerial view of the Greenwich Village looking south dates back to 1890, a decade of intense gentrification as some of America’s most notable literary figures like Henry James, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton (the list goes on) started populating the area. Understandably uneventful at first glance, the photograph should strike the beholder that City Hall is the tallest standing architecture away in the distance. Refreshingly, the downtown Manhattan skyline appears relatively undisturbed, a stark contrast to the sight of FIDI nail-cushioning our skyline today.

In the middle of the frame is Thompson Street diagonally stretching into the distance, illuminating the formerly residential nature of the present NYU “superblocks.” Indeed the absence of towering landmarks like Bobst, Kimmel, Washington Square Village, and the backwater trash bars of Bleecker duly lends Greenwich Village a more village-like aura. In these treacherous times with the NYU 2031 expansion project currently under review by the Community Board and City Council, nostalgia can be an affordable fancy. 

This image serves as “a reminder of just how much could be lost,” said English Professor Patrick Deer who is co-teaching a new course on Modernism and the City, “how do you balance conserving the neighborhood with the pressures of modernization? As both an economic engine and a longtime resident in Greenwich Village, NYU has a responsibility to preserve what’s left of the historic low-rise part of the city we can see in this image. The proposed twenty year construction program of high rise towers on our doorstep seems to many in the faculty and community to threaten an already fragile ecosystem.”

This is the bird’s-eye view of Washington Square in 1919. The Park had gone through a century-long transformation. It ceased to be the potter’s field—the burial ground for the indigent casualties of the 19th-century yellow fever epidemic—as the 1820s saw society moving uptown with such function becoming increasingly unwanted. More than 20,000 bodies are said to be resting in peace under Washington Square. After a brief stint of serving as a Military Parade Ground, the Square came under the control of NYC Department of Parks in 1871, which paved the way for a more curvaceous design in an apparent attempt to grace the casual stroller with more thrill. Noticeably, the Park is penetrated by a roadway granting a leeway access to lazy drivers from Broadway to Fifth Avenue. Notice the horse-drawn carriage in the bottom left corner of the photograph: it’s probably serving a more practical function than today’s gaudy horsy carriages of Central Park that mystifyingly presses the urge for the pursuit of tasteless romance.

The Silver Center that replaced the very first home of NYU–the neo-Gothic University Building–in 1892 stands majestically, somewhat obscuring the inconsolable memories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. The Brown Building went up in flames on a Saturday afternoon, and the workers of Triangle Shirtwaist Company were hemmed inside by flames, and locked doors. It caused the deaths of 146 workers—the oldest victim was 48 and the youngest were two fourteen-year-old girls, going down as one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of New York City. The incident called immediate attention to improving factory safety standards, and empowered the agenda of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Another photograph from the 1950s shows a double-decker bus passing through the Washington Square Arch. During 1958, two plans were laid [PDF, subscription required] for a more established roadway through the park, extending 5th avenue to West Broadway. Robert Moses, then City Construction Coordinator, Slum Clearance Chairman, and Parks Commissioner, proposed four-lanes, forty-eight feet wide. A public hearing in May of that year drew passionate arguments against those plans and even against any automobile traffic in the park, including from the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. New York University also weighed in [PDF, subscription required] on the matter. “Dr. Caroll V. Newsom, president of N.Y.U., was hissed when he presented the university position favoring a road ‘somewhat wider’ than the present easterly roadway,” the New York Times then reported.

Beyond the conspicuous absences of numerous large buildings of questionable architectural merit such as Bobst Library, Kimmel Center, and the new Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, students during the 1950s experienced further deprivations. Horrible as it may seem, our impoverished ancestors encountered a park fountain that was not in line with the Washington Square Arch, likely irrepairably damaging their sense of spatial organization and perspective. This crisis was only alleviated in 2005, when as a part of a $16 million park redesign, the Landmarks Preservation Commission replaced the old fountain with our trusted, perfectly arch-aligned current fountain.

Read More:

Old Photos Of Washington Square: A Journey To The Analog Past
NYULOCAL - February 2, 2012  - By Harry Lee and Zach Halberg  

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