Washington Square Park is the heart of the Greenwich Village . On a sunny day you’ll find everyone here, from kids hotdogging on skateboards and students strumming guitars, to die-hard Hare Krishnas spreading the word and old men taking in the sun. At the park’s southwest corner are stone chess tables where the click-clack of the pieces never seems to stop; near the center is the dog run, where dogs of every conceivable shape and size dash madly to and fro.
Once marshland, the eight-acre park was purchased by the city near the end of the 18th century to be used as a potter’s field. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1797, at least 660 people were buried here. In the late 1700s, the park was used as a public hanging ground, with many of the doomed coming from the state penitentiary that once stood above Christopher Street at the Hudson River. Physical evidence of those days still exists: in the park’s extreme northwest corner is an enormous tree bearing the sign, The Hangman’s Elm.
In the late 1820s, the square was turned into a park. Elegant townhouses went up all around, including the still-standing beautiful red-brick Greek Revival townhouses on the north side of the square, and by the 1830s, Washington Square was considered to be the city’s most fashionable residential neighborhood.
New York University (NYU) erected its first building on the park in 1837, and now occupies much of the park’s periphery. Most of the old townhouses have been replaced by institutional buildings; the genteel old families, by students.
The park’s biggest landmark is the marble Washington Square Arch marking the north entrance. Eighty-six feet tall, the arch replaces a temporary wooden one erected in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. Citizens liked the wooden arch so much that they decided to have it remade in marble. The designer was architect Stanford White, and the sculptor was A. Stirling Calder (father of famous mobile sculptor Alexander Calder).