By George Capsis
“Can I speak to George?” came a phone voice on a bright Thursday April 17th morning. When I confessed that “George was speaking,” I received an invitation to a reception at 37 Washington Square West in the penthouse apartment of the very new British-born president of New York University, Andrew Hamilton. But, surprise, the invitation was for that very afternoon, at 4:30 p.m.
“How come I’m getting this invitation so NYU continued from page 1 A Presidential late?” I asked Demetris Townes, the secretary to John Beckman, the Press VP. She said something about how the original invitation may have gone into my spam file but that “all the press was being invited.” She rattled
off a press list that even included some of the new online news services like DNA and I got the impression that this was just press and I would, for the first time, meet, face to face, my competition—ugh.
Not so! While some of the local press was invited, “none of them showed.” This invitation went out to every Village organization that might faintly be construed as a “community group,” and holding on to her walker, was the oldest continuous member of Community Board number 2, Doris Diether with 50 years of service (featured in this issue on page 16). This reception was apparently for just us little local
Ironically, 37 Washington Square West was completed in 1929, just before the crash, in English Tudor style, very popular then. As Hamilton began to speak, he explained that, from now on, this was to be the apartment of all future presidents of NYU. (Note: Former NYU president, John Sexton, who worked his way up from professor, kept his old family apartment in the same building.)
As the very large penthouse reception room rapidly began to fill, I introduced myself to President Hamilton, gave him some back copies of WestView, and explained that I wanted to have a more formal meeting with him. He, smiling, turned his head in the direction of Press VP Beckman as the man to see for such an event.
“Why,” I had asked myself “was a Brit’ hired at perhaps a $1 million and a half to take command of this cluster of odd buildings around Washington Square which is known as New York University?” When I
briefly attended NYU back in the fifties, it was known as a “subway school” with most of the students coming from first generation Brooklyn families; the “must have” co-ed costume was a beaver coat.
But, surprise, Andy Hamilton is an American Citizen! He came here in 1981 to teach at Princeton then headed the Chemistry Department at the University of Pittsburgh and, finally, after 14 years at Yale and raising three kids, returned briefly to Oxford from which he returns to the U.S. to become the 16th President of NYU.
WestView is, of course, very much a local paper and we have been for some time reporting on NYU’s plan to fill any and all not too empty spaces on its Village cam-pus with large new buildings. It has been vigorously opposed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and even NYU professors who don’t want two pie-shaped buildings wedged between the massive two-block-long apartment block in which many of them live.
But recently, the courts voted in NYU’s favor and they will move forward with at least some of the buildings they have offered in a now familiar rendering. When I reviewed this with John Beckman, on the terrace in the orange light of a setting sun sipping chilled prosecco, he looked inward and by his demeanor implied that all the planned buildings might not happen but that they would probably soon start with demolishing the gym and build on it.
The now filled room quieted as a smiling Andy Hamilton stood obviously ready to engage and charm the wine- and hors d’oeuvres-satiated audience, and he did.
He began by telling a story that The Times reported in a March 4th article that when he and his wife Jennie first arrived they explored Washington Square and were startled to hear extravagant praise for “Hamilton” only to discover it was the musical and not the new NYU president.
“I completed my time with Oxford as Big Ben rang out the end of 2015 and started my job with NYU as the ball fell in Times Square for, as his wife Jennie reminded him, “they had a five-hour vacation.” Hamilton made fun of British charm and explained how easily it could be used to engage and seduce while just the opposite was true of American speech.
He then eased into perhaps the reason why the community leaders were invited to “the battle between town and gown”—the fight to stop NYU from building—without ever mentioning it.
His speech rapidly and eloquently turned on words like “understanding” and “compromise” and then “compressed” and “stretched” as he perhaps recalled some recent encounter with the faculty groups that helped oust John Sexton and quickly ended with an invitation to eat the food “or else Jennie and I will have to.”
In a phone conversation the next day, I asked Beckman what Hamilton’s priorities were, and in what order, and here is what he sent:
“Andy Hamilton’s priorities are affordability, diversity, ensuring that an academic rationale is at the heart of NYU’s decision-making, and the student experience. I am not offering them in ranked order.”
Hmm, we, the immediate neighbors of NYU, only see it as a rich arrogant insensitive neighbor wanting to build large architecturally undistinguished buildings on areas now with park-like plantings. But Andrew Hamilton is being paid over $25,000 a week to think about the student trying to make an “academic decision” about which school has the global academic luminaries and a reputation for excellence in a given field.
Which brings us to, after 161 years, the return of a hospital to the West Village. President Andrew Hamilton can ask his board and they their business advisers to acquire the three-block-long St. John’s Terminal building at West Houston Street to build the world’s leading medical electronics research center. (Note: They can now attach electrodes to make a motionless arm return to life).