February 16, 2016

Archivist’s Angle: Before NYU—The Early History of Washington Square Park

By Deborah Shapiro (GSAS ’16)

This colored lithograph from the 1860s faces east, offering a view of the Washington Square fountain (completed in 1852) and Washington Square East, including NYU’s University Building.

NYU’s first permanent building was constructed on the outskirts of the city, in a leafy suburban neighborhood known as Greenwich Village. Isolated from the crowding further south, the Greenwich Village of the 1830s was truly a village. And the University of the City of New York had nabbed one of its most desirable sections: a lot on the eastern edge of the Washington Parade Ground, a new park with a fascinating past.

Late in 2015, construction workers unexpectedly unearthed two burial vaults along the northern side of Washington Square East. Local news outlets quoted New Yorkers who were shocked to learn about the coffins buried in the environs of the park, the perennial setting of chessmasters, tourists with selfie sticks, and jazz musicians. But burials quite literally laid the foundation of the park, from its early days as a potter’s field in 1797.

That year, the Common Council of New York City, today’s City Council, bought a 6.5-acre parcel of privately-owned farmland. The site, formerly Herring Farm, filled an urgent need of the growing city: burial space. There was no sign of slowing for the yellow fever epidemics that raged every few years, filling burial plots downtown; the area encompassing the eastern portion of today’s Washington Square was thus converted to a potter’s field, fenced off with wooden planks, and dotted with trees.

A reproduction of an 1851 painting by Major Otto Boetticher showing a regimental parade held at Washington Square Parade Ground.

Perhaps most infamously in its long history, the potter’s field was also a site for public executions. The grand “Hanging Elm” in the northwest corner of the park attests to this legend, but its name is most likely a misnomer. The convicts and undesirables executed at the Square were not hanged from the tree, but rather from a gallows at the site of today’s fountain. The longtime hangman was Daniel Megie, who lived on the site of what is now NYU’s Catholic Center. During his 1824 visit to New York, General Lafayette was said to have witnessed the hanging of twenty one highwaymen, perhaps the last that took place at the potter’s field.

An 1858 engraving showing the gentility of Washington Parade Ground in full force.

By the 1820s, Greenwich Village had become decidedly posh. Executions and burials at the potter’s field came to a halt in 1824. The Common Council contracted laborers to level the land, an iron railing and gates replaced the wooden fencing, and the site was extended west to Macdougal Street. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, the potter’s field was rededicated as the Washington Military Parade Ground. The celebration was a lavish one: a public barbecue featured numerous barrels of beer, two hundred hams, and two oxen roasted whole. The square would now be an open-­air refuge for affluent promenaders, when not in use as the backdrop for military drills.

A late 19th century photograph of the northeast corner of the park, with views of the University Building and the row houses along Washington Square North.

The newly minted parade ground provided the ideal front lawn for the City University of New York. Two years after NYU’s founding in 1831, construction began on the University Building, which fronted the grand square and took advantage of the elegant, open-air landscape. And Washington Square Park has remained, through 185 years of astonishing growth in New York, an urban oasis at the heart of NYU.