Greenwich Village and the Square

Fifty years ago, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Greenwich Village as a historic district.  This anniversary prompted a search through the Municipal Archives’ WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection for records these talented authors created about the iconic neighborhood.  Given that Greenwich Village received extensive coverage—17 pages—in their enduring, and probably most famous, publication The New York City Guide, it seemed likely that the search would prove fruitful.   Thanks to the detailed cataloging work of the City archivists who processed the collection in 1993 (a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities), a carbon copy of a typed manuscript labeled Greenwich Village and the Square, was easily identified.  Expecting that it would be the original version of the text that appeared in the Guide, we were pleasantly surprised to find an entirely different narrative—equally informative and well written.  But, as is typical of the Writer’s Project, the author is not named.  Transcribed here is the complete previously unpublished text of Greenwich Village and the Square along with photographs from the collection illustrating places and events referenced in the article.   

Washington Arch in Washington Square Park. Date: 1937. Photographer: Edwards. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 635b. NYC Municipal Archives

With the cream-white Washington Archives at the foot of Fifth Avenue as their private doorway, the Square and the Village, like two old aristocrats, remain secluded from the rest of Manhattan.  Both are inseparably linked in history and reputation, and are two of New York’s oldest and most cherished quarters.

Dominated by the arch, which was designed by Stanford White and erected in 1892 to commemorate the centenary of Washington’s inauguration, the park, about 10 acres in area, retains much of the dignity of the old unhurried New York.  Its greenness is bordered by tree-shaded walks and by a wide driveway where Fifth Avenue buses circle for their return journey northward.  An old-fashioned bandstand and gardener’s hut lend a rustic touch.  Winter and summer the park is never without its idling strollers, and well-to-do residents of the vicinity with their dogs.  And as soon as the first leaves appear on the elms, maples, lindens, and oaks, the benches below become filled with mothers and their children from the Italian colony south of the square.  In summer the central fountain back of the arch serves as a swimming hole for the youngsters.  Italy is further represented by Turini’s statue of Garibaldi near the arch; it was erected in 1888 by New York Italians.

Washington Square North. Date: 1937. Photographer: Edwards. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 635e. NYC Municipal Archives.

The motif of the square’s gentility is struck by the old red-brick houses on the north side that were once the homes of many of the “400”; a few still are occupied by members of old Knickerbocker families.  The dwellings, some of them a century old, have served time and again as setting for novels, plays, and motion pictures, notably in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Henry James’ Washington Square (James was born on the east side of the square.) No. 14 Washington Square North, now combined with nos. 15 and 16 as an apartment house, is the oldest of these homes; it was built about 1825 by William G. Rhinelander.  In the 180’s Mrs. Richard Alsop, daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, hold a literary salon in her home at No. 5, and Rodman Wanamaker lived at No. 12.  Behind these houses, east and west of Fifth Avenue, are narrow cobbled Washington Mews and MacDougal Alley, lined with studios and homes that were once stables. Back of No. 14, sheltered by a tall brick wall facing Fifth Avenue , is another converted stable that is the home of the chancellor of New York University, whose chunky buildings occupy the east side of the square.

When the original University building stood there early in the nineteenth century it was the scene of many famous achievements:  Morse developed telegraphy there; Colt perfected the revolver, and Draper took the first daguerreotype of a human face.  Present-day students of the school accent the academic air of the square by using it as a campus.  Many of the undergraduates live in a dormitory in the Judson Memorial Church, a spired yellowish structure on the south side of the square designed by Stanford White and John La Farge, with stained glass windows by La Farge.

The church’s neighbors are old run-down dwellings, most of which are boarding houses for writers, artists and such; a few are topped by a studio’s expanse of glass. No. 61 is Madame Branchard’s “House of Genius,” once the lodgings of noted literati such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, John Reed, and Alan Seeger.  A tree opposite this house was planted to the memory of Seeger, who poem, I have a Rendezvous with Death, was written in the trenches during the World War a short time before he was killed.

Washington Square’s literary traditions live on, too, in places along Fifth Avenue, just to the north.  Mark Twain lived at No. 21, and the Hotel Brevoort at Ninth Street has been a writers’ and artists’ rendezvous for nearly a century.  Its guests have included Jenny Lind, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, Leo Tolstoi, Eugene O’Neill.  The Lafayette, another old hostelry, at University Place and Ninth Street, has often been called the cradle of New York’s Bohemia.  In spring gay sidewalk cafes blossom in front of the Brevoort, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, Longchamps Restaurant and No. 1 Fifth Avenue, making the street here reminiscent of Paris itself.

Brevoort Hotel. Date: October 17, 1938. Photographer: Eiseman. WPA-FWP Collection, 3377-15. NYC Municipal Archives.

A few apartment houses on Washington Square West inject a modern note into the area’s old-world atmosphere.  In the lobby of one of them, the Holley Chambers, there is a fountain fed by Minetta Brook, a now buried stream that once coursed through this part of the city.  When Minetta was up in the open the land about here was part of the Bleecker Farm.  (Bleecker Street in this section is a reminder.)  In 1789 the city bought a piece of the farm, the site of Washington Square, for a paupers’ graveyard and later put up the town gallows there.  Between 1797 and 1823 some hundred thousand victims of yellow fever were buried there, but in 1827 most the bodies were removed to Bryant Park.  The square then was made a public park the wealthy built homes around it.  During the Civil War recruits drilled and camped on its lawns.  From 1825 to 1899 it was called Waverly Park and during that period was enlarged to its present size.

Washington Square Art Show. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 72a. NYC Municipal Archives.

On the occasion of an important parade, such as the memorable one in 1918 when A. E. F. [American Expeditionary Forces] soldiers returned from overseas, the square is the staring or ending point.  And between parades and such events as the Annual Washington Square Folk Festival—a bright occasion held on Labor Day when the city’s foreign-born of many nations perform folk dances in native costumes—the square is taken over by Greenwich Village artists for the twice-annual outdoor exhibition.  Usually held the first week in June and the last in September, these displays in most cases the only opportunity for the painters to show their work) attract large numbers of persons, most of whom come to see what a real Village artists looks like, and some to buy canvases at bargain prices.

Why and when “Village” was added to Greenwich is a minor mystery, because Greenwich, itself meaning Green Village, was the name the British gave it after their conquest of the city in 1664.  Before that it was known to the Dutch as Nortwick; today it is simply the Village to most New Yorkers.  In 1807 surveyors mapped out a new city plan, but owners of property in the Village refused to have their boundary lines disturbed (many of the boundaries were cow paths), and thus came about the curious maze of streets there.  West Fourth Street crosses West Tenth, whereas they should be parallel, and other streets make sudden surprising turns into one another.  In all likelihood part of the Village’s reputation may be due to the antic spirit of the streets.  (In a story by O. Henry a bill collector meets himself coming back after a futile search for an address.) 

As New York’s Latin Quarter, or America’s Bohemia, Greenwich Village is one of the world’s best known art and literary communities.  From the time when Tom Paine lived at 59 Grove Street writing pamphlets to encourage the Americans in the War of Independence, countless writers, artists, and intellectuals have sought the seclusion of the Village.  In its long history it has passed through many phases; it had eras of little theaters free love, Freudianism, imagist poetry, Socialism, eccentric night clubs, and other crazes, fads and movement.  (Today the keynote is probably economics.  But all the while the Village, together with its more sedate sister, Washington Square, has been essentially a place wherein to live sheltered from the harshness of commerce and industry.


Montes Restaurant, 97 MacDougal Street. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 578a. NYC Municipal Archives.

Although its night life is not so mad as it once was, the Village still cuts capers in such places as the Black Cat, 557 West Broadway; the Village Grove Nut Club, 99 Seventh Avenue South, and the Pepper Pot, 146 West Fourth Street.  A few rendezvous like the Vagabonds, Seventh Avenue near Bleecker Street, and the Village Vanguard, Seventh Avenue near Perry Street, are frequented by the Village’s younger set, who gather to read their poetry to each other, discuss the progress of their hypothetical novels, or show their drawings.  Art and literature are usually forgotten on Saturday nights when these places are given over to dancing and mild revelry.  Politics joins the other grist for the mill of the table-thumpers at Welcome Inn, 432 Sixth Avenue, and the Jumble Shop, 28 West 3th Street. At Enrico and Paglieri’s, 66 West Eleventh Street they still talk of how Jon Reed, the poet and radical who lies buried in the Kremlin in Moscow, and his friends used to shake the walls with violent discussion.

MacDougal Alley. Date: March 28, 1938. Photographer: E.M. Bofinger. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 689b. NYC Municipal Archives.

Washington Mews. Date: Oct. 17, 1938. Photographer: Eiseman. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 3377-13. NYC Municipal Archives.

The Village’s romantic past is recalled by streets like Patchn Place, Milligan Place, and Bank and Bedford Streets, with their curious little houses jumbled together.  Milligan Place was the home of Susan Glaspell, the novelist, and her husband, George Cram Cook.  It is said that when Cook died his last words were “Milligan Place.”  At 75 ½ Bedford Street is one of the city’s smallest and narrowest houses.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet, lived there.  A house on Grpove Street was the setting for O. Henry’s story, The Last Leaf.  But besides all these out-of-the-way places, Greenwich Village has its Main Street, too; and that is Eight Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  IT contains not only art and book shops, odd tearooms and restaurants, and studios, but prosaic things like drug and grocery stores, a movie house, delicatessens, and tailor shops.  Near Fifth Avenue is the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Looking into Eight Street from Sixth Avenue is the Jefferson Market Magistrate’s Court with its next door neighbor, the House of Detention for Women.  The courthouse has been a Village landmark for many years. Its former night court for women, a place of sordid drama, was the perennial subject of newspaper and fiction story, and artists never tire of drawing the dark, frim building with the familiar clock on the tower.  Women prisoners in the new House of Detention live in comparative comfort in a structure that resembles the better-class apartment house of the Village.

There was a time when the quarter had few dwelling houses more than three stories high, but the real estate boom of the 1920’s brought the firs tall apartments there, and now they are everywhere:  on Sheridan and Abingdon Squares, on Greenwich Avenue, and other streets, towering above the old structures that are part of the Village’s tradition. This spirit of commercialization also invaded Washington Square long ago, and residents of that section, as well as other New Yorkers, fear for the old homes there, especially those on the north side.  In 1935 Sailor’s Snug Harbor, owner of most of that property, announced that it was considering razing the dwellings and replacing them with modern apartment buildings.  Immediately there was a flurry of protest and many Washington Square enthusiasts shed a tear.  More than a year passed and the street remained intact. 

Despite the crowded huddle of streets and house in the Village, there are occasional open areas and wide thoroughfares.  Spacious Seventh Avenue (one of the main routes to the Holland Tunnel) intersects the district, as does broad by short Greenwich Avenue.  Sheridan Square, at Seventh Avenue and Washington Place, with its tiny triangle of green, is a potpourri of apartment houses, restaurants, night clubs, all-night coffee shots.  At night it is Times Square in miniature. Near the rim of the Village, at Eight Avenue and Eleventh Street, Abingdon Square with its old stone bandstand sits quiet, ignoring the nearby hubbub.

Latticini Cheese Shop, 276 Bleecker Street. Date: August 1937. Photographer: E.M. Bofinger. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 499. NYC Municipal Archives

Along West Third Street, where the Sixth Avenue elevated runs a short way between Sixth Avenue and West Broadway, the sides of the structure are almost within reach of third-story windows in decrepit houses, which, however forbidding, always have their quota of impoverished artistic tenants.  Below here the Italian colony abounds in pizzerias, (grocery stores) and restaurants (Mori’s and Bertolotti’s are a few of the popular ones), wine shops, open air pushcart markets, and an army of children.  At 133 MacDougal Street, in the shadow of the elevated, is the stable-theater where the Provincetown Playhouse was born in 1916. (In 1936 the WPA Studio Theater was there.)  It was one of the country’s first and most famous little theaters.  Eugene O’Neill, the dramatist, a native of Greenwich Village, began his career there and Edna St. Vincent Millay acted in some of its productions.  Near the theater are the ancient-looking Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, named for the old brook.

On the other side of the Village, at Hudson and Barrow Streets, is St. Luke’s Church, where, following a custom that began in 127, free loaves of bread are given to the needy at the 10 a.m. services.  A short distance from the church stood the hose at 80 Jane Street in which Alexander Hamilton died when he was carried there wounded after his duel with Aaron Burr.  James Fenimore Cooper lived in this sector, on Beach Street ear Hudson Street, when he wrote The Pioneer and The Pilot.

Most striking of the characteristics of Washington Square and Greenwich Village is their mellow blend of Old World and New – the quixotic jumble of old streets and modern thoroughfares, tumbledown dwelling and high apartment structures, long-standing hotels and restaurants and modern cafeterias – and the feeling everywhere of tolerance and freedom.  John Reed spoke for countless kindred spirits before and after him when he wrote:

                             Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,

                             We dare to think as uptown wouldn’t dare,

                             Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;

                             What care we for a dull old world censorious,

                             When each is sure he’ll fashion something


It is traditional that every generation of Villagers thinks it is the last to enjoy the free life.  Former habitues of the quarter often say, “The Village isn’t what it used to be,” and shake their heads sadly.  They will speak of Countess von Freytag-Loringhoven, who once shaved off her hair and painted her head a vivid green; of the girl, a poet and artists’ model, who used to war her fur coat with nothing beneath it; or of that epic event when a group of Villagers (their names are not on record) managed somehow to obtain the key to the door in the Washington Arch that opens on a stairway to the roof, and there on top of the monument held a midnight picnic.  But present young Villagers say that such gongs-on are frequent today, even though others do not hear of them.  Probably the next generation of Villagers will.           

Bedford and Commerce Streets backyard. Date: 1937. Photographer: Unknown. WPA-FWP Collection, neg. 127. NYC Municipal Archives.