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Archivist’s Angle: Architectural Achievements at NYU

The marble floor in the lobby of Bobst, inspired by the floor of a 16th century church in Venice.

By Claire Ashley Wolford (GSAS '13)

New York City is home to a great deal of astounding architecture and some of New York University’s buildings are among the most memorable in town. The University has always had a penchant for creating beautiful and unique buildings, as well as reusing and repurposing some of the city’s most cherished physical spaces. It has maintained a number of Greenwich Village’s oldest architectural gems and has commissioned several of New York’s most renowned architects to build new ones.

One of the most recognizable elements of the Washington Square NYU campus is the stately line of row houses along Washington Square North. This block of unified red brick townhouses was constructed in the Greek Revival style popular at the time of their construction during the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1840s, downtown Manhattan had become increasingly crowded and industrial. As a result, the elite retreated to the Greenwich Village area, building spacious town homes along the new Washington Square Park, which became the posh neighborhood to live in. These buildings were home to a number of famous New Yorkers including Henry James, John Dos Passos, and Edward Hopper. Though the homes have undergone numerous renovations inside, the iconic exteriors remained essentially intact while under their original ownership and since NYU began to lease the buildings in 1949. The buildings were purchased in the 1970s by the University and are now used for administrative and faculty purposes, as are those along the Washington Mews, a private, gated street between University Place and 5th Avenue. This block was originally a row of stables used to house the wealthy Greenwich Village families’ horses. In the early 20th century they were remodeled as small artist studios, and in 1950 NYU began to lease them. The street still retains its cobblestones as well as its historic charm.

Washington Mews

NYU was directly responsible for another impressive architectural feat farther uptown. In 1891, Chancellor MacCracken decided that NYU needed more room. Greenwich Village was becoming increasingly crowded with tenements and factories and he believed that a true undergraduate education required a more traditional university campus. He commissioned famous New York architect Stanford White to create a plan for the new campus to be located in the Bronx. One of the buildings White designed was the Gould Memorial Library, a huge neo-classically designed building with a magnificent rotunda. On either side of the library, White also created The Hall of Fame for Great Americans. This open air colonnade was filled with bronze busts dedicated to great Americans over the years, including the first round of nominees from 1900: George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Samuel F.B. Morse. The Gould Memorial Library and Hall of Fame still stand and are now operated by Bronx Community College now.

The iconic Washington Square North row houses in the 1970s.

NYU did not settle for creating just one structurally remarkable library in its history. In 1972, architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster built NYU’s largest library, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. Constructed at the corner of Washington Square South, the 12-story building was made out of red sandstone with a huge atrium immediately located in the entrance. The floor of this lobby is constructed out of three colors of marble in a unique geometric pattern, one inspired by the floor of Andreo Palladio’s 16th century church in Venice, the San Giorgio Maggiore. The library is one of the most memorable buildings surrounding the park, and studying at Bobst has become a quintessential part of the NYU experience.

Many of New York City’s buildings are celebrated for their immense history or their spectacular architectural achievements. NYU has continued in that direction, preserving and reusing historically valuable structures while commissioning some striking new architecture in its own right.


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