From the City of New York/Parks & Recreation Historical Signs Program:
Washington Square Park is named for George Washington (1732-1799), who served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. On April 30, 1789, six years after the victory of the colonists, Washington was inaugurated in New York City as the first President of the United States. He served for two four-year terms.
The parkland was once a marsh fed by Minetta Brook. It was located near an Indian village known as Sapokanikan or “Tobacco Field.” In 1797 the Common Council acquired the land for use as a Potter's Field or common burial ground. The field was also used for public executions, giving rise to the tale of the Hangman’s Elm which stands in the northwest corner of the park.
The site was used as the Washington Military Parade Ground in 1826, and became a public park in 1827. Following this designation, a number of wealthy and prominent families, escaping 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. One of these provided the setting for Henry James’ 1880 novel, Washington Square. In 1835, the park also hosted the first public demonstration of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse, a professor at New York University, which is adjacent to the park.
Soon after the creation of the 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. The marble Washington Arch was built between the years 1890 and 1892 to replace the popular wooden arch erected in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s inauguration. The architect Stanford White modeled both structures on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Two statues of Washington were installed on the north face of the arch in 1918, Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor by Hermon MacNeil, and Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice by Alexander Stirling Calder.
Other monuments in this park are J.Q.A. Ward’s bust of steel manufacturer Alexander Lyman Holley (1890), Giovanni Turini’s statue of Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1888), a World War I flagpole, and the central fountain which was moved here from Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in the mid 1870s.
Use of public space in Washington Square Park has also been redefined throughout the 20th century. Fifth Avenue ran through the arch until 1964 when the park was redesigned and closed to traffic at the insistence of Village residents. With the addition of bocce courts, game tables, and playgrounds, the park has become an internationally known meeting ground for students, local residents, tourists, chess players, and performers. A $900,000 renovation was completed in 1995, and an entirely new renovation is in progress in 2009.
Washington Square Park is located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. One of New York's best-known neighborhoods, Greenwich Village (often simple, "the Village") is also one of the city's oldest, having become a village of its own in 1712 (under the impossibly Seussian name of "Grin'wich"). As is always the case in New York City, there's contention about the exact boundaries of Greenwich Village, and there are some who would even cast the West Village as its own separate neighborhood. For our purposes—and we are the experts, after all—Greenwich Village stretches west from Broadway to the Hudson River, and north from Houston Street to 14th Street, and holds, within those boundaries, the sub-neighborhoods of the and West Village. It's bounded on the north by Chelsea, to the south by Hudson Square (or the South Village, depending on who you ask) and SoHo, and on the east by NoHo and the East Village (naturally). Greenwich Village has retained much of its charm and historic character over the years, thanks in part to activist residents like Jane Jacobs, who famously fought city planner Robert Moses over the planned Lower Manhattan Expressway, paving the way for a new era of historical preservation in New York. The architecture of the Village is dominated by Federalist houses, owing to the age of the neighborhood, and assorted brownstonesque apartment buildings and the like, with the unavoidable condo complexes thrown into the mix. The streets also harken back to New York City's infancy, long before the grid system conceived of by Alexander Hamilton and implemented by DeWitt Clinton was put into use, leaving the streets to the west of 6th Avenue to follow their own slanted courses, much to the confusion of tourists and New Yorkers alike. Where else could you find the intersection of West 4th and West 12th Streets? Or our personal favorite, the corner of Waverly Place and Waverly Place? The northwestern corner of the neighborhood (part of the subdivision of the West Village, now referred to as the Meatpacking District), with its industrial buildings and quaint cobblestone streets, had until recent decades doggedly resisted development, and some streetscapes appear much as they were fifty years ago. Now packed with restaurants, bars, and the towering Standard Hotel, it too has quickly entered the 21st century, and is now the home of the southern-most extremity of the glorious High Line park. Although long-time residents bemoan the weekend bridge-and-tunnel crowd, endless throngs of visitors, and double-decker tour buses, both the residential buildings and entertainment locales underscore the neighborhood's true New York flavor. Big-name joints like Fat Cat, and the legendary Village Vanguard and Blue Note vie for attention against smaller, quieter establishments like 55 Bar for dominance of the thriving jazz scene of the Village, while trendy cafés like the Minetta Tavern duke it out with more sedate mainstays like Caffe Reggio. Where once was a marshy rural hamlet, entirely separate from New York City proper, Greenwich Village grew to become one of the most interesting sections of lower Manhattan in the 20th century. In the post-war 1950s, the new Beat Generation's loose collection of writers, poets, artists, and students artists and hipsters moved here, creating the east coast precursor to the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene of the next decade. In the 1960s, the Village was the center of the folk music scene and home to safe houses used by the radical anti-war movement. And it was here also that the gay-rights movement intensified after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The Stonewall/Christopher Street area today is testimony to the neighborhood’s unique and liberal character. While the original opened in 1967 and closed after the events of the riots that bears its name, a namesake Stonewall Inn opened in the same space and remains a perennial favorite amongst the LGBT crowd, a testament to New York's implacable undercurrent of tolerance. Other popular Christopher Street gay bars include Pieces and Duplex, and if you want a more stereotypically Broadway-gay night out, Marie's Crisis routinely hosts showtune sing-alongs with live piano accompaniment. Historic Washington Square Park is the center and heart of the neighborhood and has been featured in movies like Searching For Bobby Fischer (the park's iconic chess tables play a co-starring role) and When Harry Met Sally, as well as hosting famous visitors like legendary rocker Buddy Holly, Stanley Kubrick, and even a 20,000-strong rally for President Obama during the 2007 campaign. In 2007, the Department of Parks & Recreation embarked on a massive renovation of the beloved park, with one curious correction include: the very recognizable fountain (once turned into a wading pool by urban planner Robert Moses) was repositioned to appear centered to anyone looking south along Fifth Avenue through the memorial arch. Washington Square Park serves as a sort of unofficial quad for New York University, the campus of which surrounds the park on all sides and generally permeates throughout the entire Greenwich Village area, much to the chagrin of beleaguered locals. There are also city playgrounds in the area, including Desalvio, Minetta, and Thompson Street, among others,. Perhaps the most famous, though, is "The Cage," officially known as the West 4th Street Courts. Located above the West 4th Street–Washington Square subway station at Sixth Avenue, the courts are the stomping grounds of basketball and American handball players from all over New York. The Cage has also become one of the most important sites for the citywide "Streetball" amateur basketball tournament and is always bursting with noise and energy during the summer, regardless of the heat. One of Greenwich Village's annual traditions is the Village Halloween Parade, started by mask maker and puppeteer Ralph Lee in 1973, which takes place every year on October 31st at 6pm in the Village. A mile-long ad hoc pageant of masqueraders, mummers, drag queens, exhibitionists, drunkards, druggies, puppets and pets, the parade draws an audience of two million from throughout the region and is the largest Halloween event in the country. Fine dining can be had at a number of chic restaurants in the Village; some of the more notable include Butter, the classic American cuisine at the Gotham Bar and Grill, or one of New York's best burgers at Umami Burger on 4th Street. And while the heyday of the Village's ebullient music scene have gone the way of Grey's Papaya, there's no shortage of watering holes in the neighborhood, like literary hang-out Café Loup, Dylan Thomas's beloved West Village local White Horse Tavern, sports bar and neighborhood hangout Kettle Of Fish, Comedy Cellar, and many, many others. Lastly, if all of the above information has convinced you that the Village is where it's at, you might want to consider a stay at one of the hotels in the neighborhood! The Mercer Hotel on the street of the same name offers loft living accommodations, as well as celebrity clientele and world-famous Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Mercer Kitchen. The recently renovated Washington Square Hotel offers first class accommodations and Greenwich Village walking tours, and the brand-new Marlton Hotel has quickly become a local favorite, with stellar dining and nightlife options.
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