When asked to describe the Village, many people will point out quirky street patterns, bohemian literary and jazz clubs, and small-scale houses. This description is especially apt for the South Village, the area south of Washington Square Park that the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) has long been advocating to have designated an historic district. The difference, however, is that only 1/3 of this neighborhood, rich in both architectural and cultural history, is protected under the landmarks law. In recent years, the area has seen devastating losses that signify the need for these protections. One such loss occurred long before the current preservation battle was waged.
The South Village is punctuated to the north by the row of large institutional buildings for NYU. This was not always the case though. Until the mid 20th century, many of the blocks on the Park’s south side looked much like their neighbors with uniform rows of tenements, many of which were occupied by Italian immigrants and artists. In 1950, the entire block bounded by Sullivan Street, West 3rd Street, MacDougal Street and Washington Square South was demolished to make way for an NYU Law School building.
A New York Times article written on February 8, 1950, titled read,
“A cloud of dust rose over Washington Square yesterday as a power shovel unceremoniously tore down the last building wall on the site of the New York University Law Center. A deep hole, with debris and rubble on the northern end, is all that remains of what was once a block of apartments, artist’s studios and tenements.”
The $5 million law center was named Vanderbilt Hall in honor of Arthur T. Vanderbilt, the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and Dean of the NYU Law School. The building was designed in the Neo-Georgian style, a popular approach for university buildings at the time. It was planned in an H-shape, forming two central courtyards for students to mingle. The design was by the architectural firm of Eggers & Higgins, who would later build NYU’s Hayden Residence Hall in 1957, and the school’s Catholic Center and Chapel in 1964. The latter was demolished in 2009 to make way for a new NYU Spiritual Center. In 1951, New York Times article Mr. Higgins was quoted as saying,
“The design of the building also reflects my personal as well as professional interest. I was born only a few blocks away from the square on Greenwich Avenue and studied across Broadway at Cooper Union. For years I was a member of the New York City Art Commission, which has continually advocated the preservation of the cultural and artistic atmosphere of Washington Square.”
When the swath of tenements was torn down, 177 people were misplaced. Neighborhood residents fought the law school plan because it destroyed private homes, among other reasons. Many felt that, although the building represented the academic style of Harvard and the stately nature of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, it was not in keeping with the traditional vernacular of the South Village.
Today, Villagers are still fighting the obtrusion of NYU as well as advocating for the preservation of the South Village. Visit gvshp.org to find out how you can get involved with these causes.