I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early association, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer,. more honorable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfarethe look of having had something of a social history.HENRY JAMES (in “Washington Square”).
HERE is little in our busy, modern, progressive city to suggest Father Knickerbocker, with his three-cornered hat and knee-breeches, and his old-world air so homely and so picturesque. Our great streets, hemmed by stone and marble and glittering plate glass, crowded with kaleidoscopic cosmopolitan traffic, ceaselessly resonant with twentieth century activity, do not seem a happy setting for our old-fashioned and beloved presiding shade. Where could he fall a-nodding, to dream himself back into the quaint and gallant days of the past? Where would he smoke his ancient Dutch pipe in peace? One has a mental picture of Father Knickerbocker shaking his queued head over so much noise and haste, so many new-fangled, cluttering things and ways, such a confusion of aims and pursuits on his fine old island! And he would be a wretched ghost indeed if doomed to haunt only upper New York. But it happens that he has a sanctuary, a haven after his own heart, where he can still draw a breath of relief, among buildings small but full of age and dignity and with the look of homes about them; on restful, crooked little streets where there remain trees and grass-plots; in the old-time purlieus of Washington Square and Greenwich Village!
The history of old New York reads like a romance. There is scarcely a plot of ground below Fourteenth Street without its story and its associations, its motley company of memories and spectres both good and bad, its imperishably adventurous savour of the past, imprisoned in the dry prose of registries and records. Let us just take a glance, a bird’s-eye view as it were, of that region which we now know as Washington Square, as it was when the city of New York bought it for a Potter’s Field.
Perhaps you have tried to visualise old New York as hard as I have tried. But I will wager that, like myself, you have been unable to conjure up more than a nebulous and tenuous vision,a modern New York’s shadow, the ghostly skeleton of our city as it appears today. For instance, when you have thought of old Washington Square, you have probably thought of it pretty much as it is now, only of course with an old-time atmosphere. The whole Village, with all your best imaginative efforts, persists-does it not?in being a part of New York proper.
It was not until I had come to browse among the oldest of Manhattan’s oldest records,(and at that they’re not very old!)those which show the reaching out of the fingers of early progress, the first shoots of metropolitan growth, that the picture really came to me. Then I saw New York as a little city which had sprung up almost with the speed of a modern mushroom town. First, in Peter Minuit’s day, its centre was the old block house below Bowling Green; then it spread out a bit until it became a real, thriving city,with its utmost limits at Canal Street! Greenwich and the Bowery Lane were isolated little country hamlets, the only ones on the island, and far, far out of town. They appeared as in-accessible to the urban dwellers of that day as do residents on the Hudson to the confirmed city people nowadays;nay, still more so, since trains and motors, subways and surface cars, have more or less annihilated distance for us.
Washington Square was then in the real wilds, an uncultivated region, half swamp, half sand, with the Sand Hill Road, an old Indian trail, running along the edge of it, and Minetta Creek taking its sparkling course through its centre.
It was many years before Minetta was even spanned by a bridge, for no one lived anywhere near it.
Peter Stuyvesant’s farm gave the Bowery its name, for you must know that Bouwerie came from the Dutch word Bouwerij, which means farm, and this country lane ran through the grounds of the Stuyvesant homestead. A branch road from the Bouwerie Lane led across the stretch of alternate marsh and sand to the tiny settlement of Greenwich, running from east to west. The exact line is lost today, but we know it followed the general limit of Washington Square North. On the east was the Indian trail. Sarah Comstock says:
” The Indian trail has been, throughout our country, the beginning of the road. In his turn, the Indian often followed the trail of the beast. Such beginnings are indiscernible for the most part, in the dusk of history, but we still trace many an old path that once knew the tread of moccasined feet.”
Here, between the short lane that ran from the Bouwerij toward the first young sprout of Greenwich, and the primitive Sand Hill (or Sandy Hill) Trail lay a certain waste tract of land. It was flanked by the sand mounds,part of the Zantberg, or long range of sand hills,haunted by wild fowl, and utterly aloof from even that primitive civilisation. The brook flowed from the upper part of the Zantberg Hills to the Hudson River, and emptied itself into that great channel at a point somewhere near Charlton Street. The name Minetta came from the Dutch root,-min,-minute, diminutive. With the popular suffix tje (the Dutch could no more resist that than the French can resist ette!) it became Mintje, the little one,to distinguish it from the Groote Kill or large creek a mile away. It was also sometimes called Bestavaar’s Killetje, or Grand-father’s Little Creek, but Mintje persisted, and soon became Minetta.
Minetta was a fine fishing brook, and the adjacent region was full of wild duck; so, take it all in all, it was a game preserve such as sports-men love. It seems that the old Dutch settlers were fond of hunting and fishing, for they came here to shoot and angle, as we would go intolet us saythe Adirondacks or the Maine woods!
” A high range of sand hills traversed a part of the island, from Varick and Charlton to Eighth and Green streets,” says Mary L. Booth, in her history. ” To the north of these lay a valley through which ran a brook, which formed the outlet of the springy marshes of Washington Square. . . .”
And here, on the self-same ground of those ” springy marshes,” is Washington Square today.
The lonely Zantberg,the wind-blown range of sand hills; the cries of the wild birds breaking the stillness; the quietly rippling stream winding downward from the higher ground in the north, and now and then, in the spring of the year, overflowing its bed in a wilderness of brambles and rushes ;do these things make you realise more plainly the sylvan remoteness of that part of New York which we now know as Downtown?
A glance at Bernard Ratzer’s mapmade in the beginning of the last half of the eighteenth century for the English governor, Sir Henry Mooreshows the only important holdings in the neighbourhood at that time: the Warren place, the Herrin (Haring or Harring) farm, the Eliot estate, etc. The site of the Square, in fact, was originally composed of two separate tracts and had two sources of title, divided by Minetta Brook, which crossed the land about sixty feet west of where Fifth Avenue starts today. West-ward lay that rather small portion of the land which belonged to the huge holdings of Sir Peter Warren, of whom more anon.
The eastern part was originally the property of the Herrings, Harrings or Herrins,a family prominent among the early Dutch settlers and later distinguished for patriotic services to the new republic. They appear to have been directly descended from that intrepid Hollander, Jan Hareng of the city of Hoorn, who is said to have held the narrow point of a dike against a thou-sand Spaniards, and performed other prodigious feats of valour. In the genealogical book I read, it was suggested that the name Hareng originated in some amazingly large herring catch which (I quote verbatim from that learned book)’ ” astonished the city of Hoorn,”and henceforth attached itself to the redoubtable fisherman!
The earliest of the family in this city was one Jan Pietersen Haring, and his descendants worked unceasingly for the liberty of the republic and against the Tory party. In 1748, Elbert Haring received a grant of land which was undoubtedly the farm shown in the Ratzer map. A tract of it was sold by the Harring (Herring) family to Cornelius Roosevelt; it passed next into Jacob Sebor’s hands, and in 1795 was bought by Col. William S. Smith, a brilliant officer in Washington’s army, and holder of various posts of public office.
There was a Potter’s Field, a cemetery for the poor and friendless, far out in the country,i.e, somewhere near Madison Square,but it was neither big enough nor accessible enough. In 1789, the city decided to have another one. The tract of land threaded by Minetta Water, half marsh and half sand, was just about what was wanted. It was retired, the right distance from town and excellently adapted to the purposes of a burying ground. The ground, popular historians to the contrary, was by no means uniformly swampy. When filled in, it would, indeed, be dry and sandy,the sandy soil of Greenwich extends, in some places, to a depth of fifty feet. Accordingly, the city bought the land from the Herrings and made a Potter’s Field. Eight years later, by the bye, they bought Colonel Smith’s tract too, to add to the field. The entire plot was ninety lots,eight lots to an acre,and comprised nearly the entire site of the present square. The extreme western part, a strip ex-tending east of Macdougal Street to the Brook, a scant thirty feet,was bought from the Warren heirs.
Minetta Lane, which was close by, had a few aristocratic country residents by that time, and every one was quite outraged by the notion of having a paupers’ graveyard so near. Several rich people of the countryside even offered to present the city corporation with a much larger and more valuable plot of ground somewhere else; but the officials were firm. The public notice was relentlessly made, of the purchase of ground ” bounded on the road leading from the Bowerie Lane at the two-mile stone to Greenwich.”
When you next stroll through the little quiet park in the shadow of the Arch and Turini’s great statue of Garibaldi, watching the children at play, the tramps and wayfarers resting, the tired horses drinking from the fountain the S. P. C. A. has placed there for their service and comfort, the old dreaming of the past, and the young dreaming of the future,see, if you please, if it is not rather a wistfully pleasant thought to re-call the poor and the old and the nameless and the humble who were put to rest there a century and a quarter ago?
The Aceldama of the Priests of Jerusalem was ” the potter’s field to bury strangers in,” according to St. Matthew; and in the Syriac version that meant literally ” the field of sleep.” It is true that when they made use of Judas Iscariot’s pieces of silver, they twisted the syllables to mean the ” field of blood,” but it was a play upon words only. The Field of Sleep was the Potter’s Field, where the weary “strangers” rested, at home at last.
There is nothing intrinsically repellent in the memories attached to a Potter’s Field,-save, possibly, in this case, a certain scandalous old story of robbing it of its dead for the benefit of the medical students of the town. That was a disgraceful business if you like! But public feeling was so bitter and retributive that the practice was speedily discontinued. So, again, there is nothing to make us recoil, here among the green shadows of the square, from the recollection of the Potter’s Field. But there is always something fundamentally shocking in any place of public punishment. And,alas!there is that stain upon the fair history of this square of which we are writing.
Forthere was a gallows in the old Potter’s Field. Upon the very spot where you may be watching the sparrows or the budding leaves, offenders were hanged for the edification or intimidation of huge crowds of people. Twenty highwaymen were despatched there, and at least one historian insists that they were all executed at once, and that Lafayette watched the performance. Certainly a score seems rather a large number, even in the days of our stern forefathers; one cannot help wondering if the event were presented to the great Frenchman as a form of entertainment.
In 1795 came one of those constantly recurring epidemics of yellow fever which used to devastate early Manhattan; and in 1797 came a worse one. Many bodies were brought from other burying grounds, and when the scourge of smallpox killed off two thousand persons in one short space, six hundred and sixty-seven of them were laid in this particular public cemetery. During one very bad time, the rich as well as the poor were brought there, and there were nearly two thou-sand bodies sleeping in the Potter’s Field.
People who had died from yellow fever were wrapped in great yellow sheets before they were buried,a curious touch of symbolism in keeping with the fantastic habit of mind which we find everywhere in the early annals of America. Mr. E. N. Tailer, among others, can recall, many years later, seeing the crumbling yellow folds of shrouds uncovered by breaking coffin walls, when the heavy guns placed in the Square sank too weightily into the ground, and crushed the trench-vaults.
It would be interesting to examine, in fancy, those lost and sometimes non-existent headstones of the Field,that is, to try to tell a few of the tales that cling about those who were buried there. But the task is difficult, and after all, tombstones yield but cheerless reading. That the sleepers in the Potter’s Field very often had not even that shelter of tombstones makes their stories the more elusive and the more melancholy. One or two slight records stand out among the rest, notably the curious one attached to the last of the stones to be removed from Washington Square. I believe that it was in 1857 that Dr. John Francis, in an address before the Historical Society of New York, told this odd story, which must here be only touched upon.
One Benjamin Perkins, ” a charlatan believer in mesmeric influence,” plied his trade in early Manhattan. He seems to have belonged to that vast army of persons who seriously believe their own teachings even when they know them to be preposterous. Perkins made a specialty of yellow fever, and insisted that he could cure it by hypnotism. That he had a following is in no way strange, considering his day and generation, but the striking point about this is that, when he was exposed to the horror himself, he tried to auto-mesmerise himself out of it. After three days he died, as Dr. Francis says, ” a victim of his own temerity.”
And still the gallows stood on the Field of Sleep, and also a big elm tree which sometimes served as the ” gallows tree.” Naturally, Indians and negroes predominated in the lists of malefactors executed. The redmen were distrusted from the beginning on Manhattan,and with some basic reason, one must admit;as for the blacks, they were more severely dealt with than any other class. The rigid laws and restrictions of that day were applied especially rigidly to the slaves. A slave was accounted guilty of heavy crimes on the very lightest sort of evidence, and the penal-ties imposed seem to us out of all proportion to the acts. Arson, for instance, was a particularly heinous offencewhen committed by a negro. The negro riots, which form such an exceedingly black chapter in New York’s history, and which horrify our more humane modern standards with ghastly pictures of hangings and burnings at the stake, were often caused by nothing more criminal than incendiarism. One very bad period of this sort of disorder started with a trifling fire in Sir Peter Warren’s house,the source of which was not discovered,and later grew to ungovernable proportions through other acts of the same sort.
As late as 1819, a young negro girl named Rose Butler was hanged in our Square before an immense crowd, including many women and young children. Kindly read what the New York Evening Post said about it in its issue of July 9th:
” Rose, a black girl who had been sentenced to be hung for setting fire to a dwelling house, and who was respited for a few days, in the hope that she would disclose some accomplice in her wickedness, was executed yesterday at two o’clock near the Potter’s Field.”
And in Charles H. Haswell’s delightful ” Reminiscences,” there is one passage which has, for modern ears, rather too Spartan a ring:
” A leading daily paper referred to her (he speaks of Rose) execution in a paragraph of five lines, without noticing any of the unnecessary and absurd details that are given in the present day in like cases; neither was her dying speech recorded. . . .”
Thomas Janvier declares that she was accused of murder, but all other authorities say that poor Rose’s ” wickedness ” had consisted of lighting a fire under the staircase of her master’s house, with, or so it was asserted, ” a malicious intent.” One sees that it was quite easy to get hanged in those days; especially if you happened to be a negro! The great elm tree, on a branch of which Rose was hanged, stood intact in the Square until 1890. I am glad it is gone at last!
Old Manhattan was as strictly run as disciplinary measures and rules could contrive and guarantee. The old blue laws were stringently en-forced, and the penalty for infringement was usually a sharp one. In the unpublished record of the city clerk we find, next to the item that records Elbert Harring’s application for a land-grant, a note to the effect that a ” Publick Whip-per ” had been appointed on the same day, at five pounds quarterly.
Public notices of that time, printed in the cur-rent press, remind the reader of some of these aforementioned rules and regulations. We read that ” Tapsters are forbid to sell to the Indians,” and that ” unseasonable night tippling ” is also tabooed; likewise drinking after nine in the evening when curfew rings, or ” on a Sunday before three o’clock, when divine service shall be over.”
I wonder whether little old ” Washington Hall ” was built too late to come under these regulations? It was a roadhouse of some repute in 1820, and a famous meeting place for celebrities in the sporting world. It was, too, a tavern and coffee house for travellers (its punch was famous!) and the stagecoaches stopped there to change horses. At this moment of writing it is still standing, on the south of Washington Square,I think number 58,with other shabby structures of wood, which, for some inscrutable reason, have never been either demolished or improved. Now they are doomed at last, and are to make way for new and grand apartment houses; and so these, among the oldest buildings in Greenwich, drift into the mist of the past.
And in that same part of the Squarein number 59 or 60, it is saidlived one who cannot be omitted from any story of the Potter’s Field : Daniel Megie, the city’s gravedigger. In 1819 he bought a plot of ground from one John Ire-land, and erected a small frame house, where he lived and where he stored the tools of his rather grim trade. For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep; then, in 1823, a new Potter’s Field was opened at the point now known as Bryant Park, and the bodies from the lower cemetery were carried there. Megie, apparently, lost his job, sold out to Joseph Dean and disappeared into obscurity. It is interesting to note that he bought his plot in the first place for $500; now it is incorporated in the apartment house site which is estimated at about $250,000!
There is a legend to the effect that Governor Lucius Robinson later occupied this same house, but the writer does not vouch for the fact. The Governor certainly lived somewhere in the vicinity, and his favourite walk was on Amity Street,why can’t we call it that now, instead of the cold and colourless Third Street?
I find that I have said nothing of Monument Lane,sometimes called Obelisk Lane,yet it was quite a landmark in its day, as one may gather from the fact that Ratzer thought it important enough to put in his official map. It ran, I think, almost directly along North Washington Square, and, at one point, formed part of the ” Inland Road to Greenwich ” which was the scene of Revolutionary manceuvres. Monument Lane was so called because at the end of it (about Fifteenth Street and Eighth Avenue) stood a statue of the much-adored English general, James Wolfe, whose storming of the Heights of Abraham in the Battle of Quebec, and attendant defeat of the Marquis de Montcalm, have made him illustrious in history. After the Revolution, the statue disappeared, and there is no record of its fate.
With the passing of the old Potter’s Field, came many changes. Mayor Stephen Allen (later lost on the Henry Clay), made signal civic improvements; he levelled, drained and added three and a half acres to the field. In short, it became a valuable tract of ground. Society, driven steadily upward from Bowling Green, Bond Street, Bleecker and the rest, had commenced to settle down in the country. What had yesterday been rural districts, were suburbs today.
In 1806 there were as many as fifteen families in this neighbourhood rich and great enough to have carriages. Colonel Turnbull had an ” out of town ” house at, approximately, Eighth and Macdougal streets,a charming cottage, with twenty acres of garden land which today are worth millions. Growing tired of living in the country, he offered to sell his place to his friend, Nehemiah Rogers,; but the latter decided against it.
” It is too far out of town!” he declared.
” But you have a carriage!” exclaimed the Colonel. ” You can drive in to the city when-ever you want to!”
The distance was too great, however, and Mr. Rogers did not buy.
By 1826, however, the tide had carried many persons of wealth out to this neighbourhood, and there were more and more carriages to be seen with each succeeding month. All at once, high iron railings were built about the deserted Potter’s Field,a Potter’s Field no longer,and on June 27th of that year a proclamation was issued :
” The corporation of the city of New York have been pleased to set apart a piece of ground for a military parade on Fourth Street near Macdougal Street, and have directed it to be called ` Washington Military Parade Ground.’ For the purpose of honouring its first occupation as a military parade, Colonel Arcularis will order a detachment from his regiment with field pieces to parade on the ground on the morning of the Fourth of July next. He shall fire a national salute and proclaim the name of the parade ground, with such ceremonies as he shall see fit.”
This occasion, an anniversary of American in-dependence, seems to have been a most gorgeous affair, with the Governor, Mayor and other officials present, and a monumental feast to wind up with. The menu included, among other dainties, two oxen roasted whole, two hundred hams ‘(” with a carver at each “), and so many barrels of beer that the chronicler seems not to have had the courage to record the precise number!
1827 seems to have seen a real growth of social life around the Washington Parade Ground. The New York Gazette of June 7th advertised ” three-story dwellings in Fourth Street, between Thompson and Macdougal streets, for sale. The front and rear of the whole range is to be finished in the same style as the front of the Bowery Theatre, and each to have a grass plot in front with iron railings.”
This promise of theatrical architecture seems a curious inducement, but it must have been effective, for many exclusive families cameno, flocked,to live in the houses!
In 1830 there was a grand celebration there in joint honour of the anniversary of the British evacuation and the crowning of Louis Philippe in France. Everybody sang patriotic French and American airs, sent off fireworks, fired salutes and had a wildly enthusiastic time. Incidentally, there were speeches by ex-President Monroe and the Hon. Samuel Gouveneur. Enoch Crosby, who was the original of Fenimore Cooper’s famous Harvey Birch in ” The Spy,” was present, and so was David Williams, one of the captors of Major Andre,not to mention about thirty thousand others!
This year saw, too, the founding of the University of the City of New York, on the east side of the Square,or rather, the Parade Ground, as it was then. That fine old educational institution came close to having its cornerstones christened with blood, for it was the occasion of the well-known,—-shall we say the notorious?” Stonecutters’ Riots.” The builders contracted for work to be done by the convicts of Sing Sing Prison, and the city workmen, or Stone-cutters’ Guild,already strong for unions,objected. In fact, they objected so strenuously that the Twenty-seventh Regiment (now our popular Seventh) was called out, and stayed under arms in the Square for four days and nights; after which the disturbance died down.
The next important labour demonstration in the Square was in 1855, when, during a period of ” hard times,” eight thousand workmen assembled there with drums and trumpets, and made speeches in the most approved and up-to-date agitator style, collecting a sum of money which went well up into four figures !
In 1833 society folded its wings and settled down with something resembling permanence upon the corner of the ” Snug Harbour ” lands, which formed the famous North Side of Washington Square. Of all social and architectural centres of New York, Washington Square North has changed least. Progress may come or go, social streams may flow upward with as much speed, energy and ambition as they will; the eddies leave one quiet and lovely pool unstirred. That fine row of stately houses remains the symbol of dignified beauty and distinction and an aristocracy that is not old-fashioned but perennial.
Such names as we read associated with the story of Washington Square and its environs! Names great in politics and patriotism, in art and literature, in learning and distinction, in fashion and fame and architecture. Hardly one of them but is connected with great position or great achievement or both. Rhinelander, Roosevelt, Hamilton, Chauncey, Wetmore, Howland, Suffern, Vanderbilt, Phelps, Winthrop,the list is too long to permit citing in full. Three mayors have lived there, and in the immediate vicinity dwelt such distinguished literary persons as Bayard Taylor, Henry James, George William Curtis, N. P. Willis (Nym Crynkle), our immortal Poe himself, Anne Lynch,poetess and hostess of one of the first and most distinguished salons of AmericaCharles Hoffman, editor of the Knickerbocker, and so on. Another centre of wit and wisdom was the house of Dr. Orville Dewey,whose Unitarian Church, at Broadway and Waverly Place, was the subject of the first successful photograph in this country by the secret process confided to Morse by Daguerre.
Edgar Allan Poe lived with his sick young wife, Virginia, on Carmine Street, and lived very uncomfortably, too. The name of his boarding-house keeper is lost to posterity, but the poet wrote of her food: ” I wish Kate our cat could see it. She would faint.”
Poor Poe lived always somewhere near the Square. Once in a while he moved away for a time, but he invariably gravitated back to it and to his old friends there. It was in Carmine Street that he wrote his ” Arthur Gordon Pym,” with Gowans the publisher for a fellow lodger; it was on Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place that he created ” Ligeia ” and ” The Fall of the House of Usher.” After Virginia’s death, he took a room just off the Square, and wrote the ” Imp of the Perverse,” with her picture (it is said) above his desk. It was at these quarters that Lowell called on him, and found him, alas ! ” not him-self that day.” The old Square has no stranger nor sadder shade to haunt it than that of the brilliant and melancholy genius who in life loved it so well.
Poe’s friend Willis published many of his stories and articles in the Sun, still a newcomer in the old field of journalism. Willis has his own connection with the tale of the Square, though not a very glorious one. The town buzzed for days with talk of the sensational interview between Nym Crinkle and Edwin Forrest, the actor. Mr. Willis made some comments on Forrest’s divorce, in an editorial, and that player, so well adored by the American public, took him by the coat collar in Washington Square and exercised his stage-trained muscles by giving him a thorough and spectacular thrashing.
Somewhere in that neighbourhood, much earlier, another editor, William Coleman, founder of the Evening Post, and Jeremiah Thompson, Collector of the Port, fought a duel to the death. It was indeed to the death, for Thompson was wounded fatally. But duels were common enough in those days; we feel still the thrill of indignation roused by the shooting of Alexander Hamilton by Burr.
The old University of New Yorkwhere Professor Morse conducted his great experiments in telegraphy, where Samuel Colt in his tower work-room perfected his revolver, where the Historical Society of New York was first established and where many of our most distinguished citizens received their educationwas never a financial success. For a time they tried to make it pay by taking tenantsyoung students, and bachelors who wished seclusion for writing or research. Then, in the course of time, it was moved away to the banks of the Hudson. On the site now stands a modern structure, where, to be sure, a few of the old University departments are still conducted, but which is chiefly celebrated as being the first all-bachelor apartment house erected in town. It is appropriately called the ” Benedick,” after a certain young man who scoffed at matrimony, and incidentally got married!
And a few of the families stay beneath the roofs their forefathers built, watching, as they watched, the same quiet trees and lawns and paths of the most charming square in all New York : De Forest, Rhinelander, Delano, Stewart, De Rham, Gould, Wynkoop, Tailer, Guinness, Claflin, Booth, Darlington, Gregory, Hoyt, Schell, Shattuck, Weekes,these, and others are still the names of the residents of Washington Square North. Father Knickerbocker, coming to smoke his pipe here, will be in good company, you perceive!
The recollections of many living persons who recall the old Square and other parts of early New York, bring forcibly to us the realisation of the speed with which this country of ours has evolved itself. In one man’s lifetime, New York has grown from a small town just out of its Colonial swaddling clothes to the greatest city in the world. These reminiscences; then, are but memories of yesterday or the day before. We do not have to take them from history books but from the diaries of men and women who are still wide-eyed with wonder at the changes which have come to their city!
” The town was filled with beautiful trees,” says one man (who remembers Commodore Vanderbilt, with the splendid horses, the fine manner and the unexampled profane eloquence), ” but the pavements were very dirty. Places like St. John’s Park and Abingdon Square were quiet and sweet and secluded. Where West Fourth Street and West Eleventh Street met it was so still you could almost hear the grass grow between the cobblestones! Everything near the Square was extremely exclusive and fashionable. Washington and Waverly places were very aristocratic indeed.”
Waverly Place, by the bye, got its name through a petition of select booklovers who lived thereabouts and adored Sir Walter Scott. It speaks well for the good taste of the aristocratic quarter, even though the tribute came a bit late,about twenty years after ” Waverley ” was published!
The celebrated north side of the Square was called, by the society people, ” The Row,” and was, of course, the last word in social prestige. But, for all its lofty place in the veneration of the world and his wife, its ways were enchantingly simple, if we may trust the tales we hear. In the Square stood the ” Pump With The Long Handle,” and thence was every bucketful of washing water drawn by the gilt-edged servants of the gilt-edged ” Row “! The water was, it is said, particularly soft,rain, doubtless,and day by day the pails were carried to the main pump to be filled!
When next you look at the motor stages gliding past the Arch, try, just for a moment, to visualise the old stages which ran on Fifth Avenue from Fulton Ferry uptown. They were very elaborate, we are told, and an immense improvement on the old Greenwich stagecoaches, and the great lumbering vehicles that conveyed travellers along the Post Road. These new Fifth Avenue stages were brightly painted: the body of the coach was navy blue, the running gear white, striped with red, and the lettering and decorations of gold. A strap which enabled the driver to open and close the door without descending from his seat was looked upon as an impressive innovation! Inside, there were oil paintings on panels, small candles in glass boxes for illumination, and straw on the floor to keep your feet warm. These luxuries justified the high rate which was charged. The fare was ten cents!
In very heavy snowstorms the stages were apt to get stalled, so that a few stage sleighs were run in midwinter, but only in the city proper. Their farthest uptown terminal was at Fourteenth Street, so they were not much help to suburbanites!
No single article, or chapter, can even attempt to encompass the complete story of Washington Square. Covering the entire period of the city’s history, passing through startling changes and transformations, the scene of great happenings, the background of illustrious or curious lives,it is probably more typical of the vertiginous development of New York than any single section. The Indians, the Dutch, the English, the Colonials, the Revolutionists, the New Americans, the shining lights of art, science, fashion and the state, have all passed through it, confidently and at home. The dead have slept there; wicked men have died there and great ones been honoured. Belles and beaux have minced on their way beneath the thick green branches,branches that have also quivered to the sound of artillery fire saluting a mighty nation newborn. Nothing that a city can feel or suffer or delight in has escaped Washington Square. Everything of valour and tragedy and gallantry and high hopethat go to making a great town as much and more than its bricks and mortarare in that nine and three-quarters acres that make up the very heart and soul of New York.
The lovely Arch first designed by Stanford White and erected by William Rhinelander Stew-art’s public-spirited efforts, on April 30, 1889, was in honour of the centennial anniversary of Washington’s inauguration; it was so beautiful that, happily, it was later made permanent in marble, and in all the town there could have been found no more fitting place for it.
In every really great city there is one place which is, in a sense, sacred from the profanation of too utilitarian progress. However commercialised Paris might become, you could not cheapen the environs of Notre Dame! Whatever happens to us, let us hope that we will always keep Washington Square as it is today,our little and dear bit of fine, concrete history, the one perfect page of our old, immortal New York!
Father Knickerbocker, may you dream well!