Then&Now: NYU’s Main Building Washington Square

By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

Then: The University of the City of New York was incorporated in 1831 as a nondenominational modern university, supported by private donations. The University Building, shown above, was constructed in 1832-35 as the first and only original building for the campus, at the entire Washington Square East blockfront between Waverly Place and Washington Place. This conspicuous five-story Gothic-style structure of light-colored limestone contained classrooms, laboratories, museum and observatory, and the residence for professors. The founders envisioned an institution for students “who devote themselves to scientific or literary pursuits,” and for those preparing for “the learned professions, commerce, or the mechanical and useful arts.”

THEN. Photo credit: King’s Handbook of New York City, Second Edition, 1893.


NOW. Photo credit: Brian J Pape

City University of New York, CUNY, dates back to the formation of the Free Academy in 1847 for the purpose of “extending the benefits of education gratuitously to persons who have been pupils in the common schools of the … city and county of New York”. The Free Academy later was absorbed into the City College of New York, making it the oldest institution among the CUNY 7 colleges and numerous other schools. Perhaps to avoid confusion, the private University of the City of New York had been popularly known as New York University since its inception but was officially renamed New York University in 1896.

In a major pivot in 1891, the University bought a 40-acre Bronx site intended for its University Heights campus, with the College of Arts and Philosophy, technical schools, and the Graduate Seminary (founded in 1886). Its Beaux-Arts buildings, which included the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, were designed by the celebrated architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White. (The Moses King Handbook incorrectly identifies this University campus as located in Washington Heights.)

The Schools of Law (founded in 1835), and Pedagogy (founded in 1890), and part of the Graduate Seminary, were maintained at Washington Square, along with one of the country’s first university-affiliated business schools (founded in 1900). The University Medical College (1841), Colleges of Dentistry (1865) and Pharmacy (1829) were located elsewhere in downtown Manhattan.

Now: The current 10-story building, called Main Building, shown bottom left, was designed by Alfred Zucker, a German born and trained architect, in 1892. Zucker maintained the foundation and many other features of the original university building, but not the Gothic façade.

Initially, the light brick, stone and terracotta edifice housed University College and the School of Law. During those early years, in addition to serving as NYU’s main academic building, Main Building rented offices, studio space and residential apartments, and the American Book Company also rented space in the building. This combination of institutional and commercial tenants was expressed in the building’s tripartite facade design. The university’s academic presence on the three top floors was distinguished by engaged Ionic columns capped by pediments, and a set of balcony balustrades.

In 1927, due to the pressures of a growing post-WWI student body, NYU cleared out commercial tenants, to use the space for academic purposes.

A number of new graduate schools complemented NYU’s undergraduate growth: the College of Nursing (1932), the Institute of Fine Arts (1933), the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (1934), and new colleges in continuing education (1934) and public service (1938), the latter founded with the encouragement of Mayor La Guardia, himself an NYU alumnus. With the largest private college enrollment in the country—an astonishing 47,000 students by 1939—NYU had in many ways become the great urban university its founders dreamed of.

The post-WWII decades were also a period of continued growth for NYU, as returning GIs swelled the student body. Schools of social work (1960), the arts (1965), and individualized study (1972) were added; and plans were made for a central library. By 1973, however, as New York City reeled from years of rising crime and financial troubles, and NYU enrollments declined, running up annual deficits since 1964, NYU reluctantly sold its University Heights campus in order to regain solvency. All undergraduate liberal arts education was consolidated at Washington Square in 1973.

Bronx Community College, part of CUNY and now located there, got the original University Heights buildings declared a National Historic Landmark.

In 2002, Main Building was renamed the “Silver Center of Arts & Science” in honor of Julius Silver, an alumnus. Renovations have dramatically improved the facility while maintaining the historic features. NYU owns nine other buildings designed by Zucker, that were built in this commercial area as lofts and wholesale stores. The 10-story Brown Building (formerly the Asch Building, ca. 1901) was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, the industrial tragedy which generated many of New York City’s current labor and building safety laws.

The Brown Building of Science and the Waverly Building occupy the same block and have been internally connected at the ground floor as well as by stairway and elevator (with the idiosyncrasy of adjacent floors that do not correspond by floor number) so that the three buildings are known collectively as the “Main block.” The Silver Center for Arts and Science at 32 Waverly Place continues to serve the greatly expanded NYU.

Text credit: King’s Handbook of New York City, Second Edition, 1893, and Wikipedia website. .

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, is LEED-AP “Green” certified, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.

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