other neighborhood in Greenwich Village has been the birthplace
of more art and literature than the area around Washington
Square. In the 19th Century, this area attracted the most
wealthy and elegant people in New York. Aside from the famous
families such as The Rhinelanders, The Belmonts and The
Brevoorts, there were writers whose style reflected these
times, like Henry James and Edith Wharton. At the turn of
the century, when some of these wealthy families headed north,
the area experienced a decline. Now a new group of "bohemians"
moved in and made the area even richer. This group represents
some of the greatest American literary figures and intellectuals
of the 20th Century. They were the exact opposites of their
predecessors in their writing style, politics and personalities.
These literary rebels included Eugene O'Neill, John Reed,
Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Max Eastman, Theodore Dreiser,
Lincoln Steffens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Upton Sinclair
and e. e. cummings. These people were the heart and soul of
Washington Square and made it the place to be if you had talent
The talent of these activists was infectious. They drank,
ate, schemed, commiserated and talked endlessly. Socialites
with conscience, such as Mable Dodge, would open her home
for their entertainment. Her Greenwich Village salon was the
genesis of many ideas including the Armory Art Show. This
controversial first armory show displayed modern and impressionist
art by Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin, Seurat, and Duchamp. This
collection was used to form MOMA. In her salon, Dodge coaxed
John Reed into staging the "Patterson Silk Workers Strike"
at Madison Square Garden.
Square was originally a "potter's field" (cemetery) and execution
ground. It was not until it was formally dedicated as the
"Washington Military Parade Ground" on our Nations 50th Birthday
that the area became desirable. Fashionable townhouses were
built around the Square. Stanford White designed the arch
(first in wood and then in marble). Marble and limestone mansions
were built around the Square. In fact, the most beautiful
mansion of all, belonging to John Taylor Johnson, stood at
4 West 8th Street. It was here that he began the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, when he ran out of wall space and began housing
his art collection in his stable, opening it to the public.
Ironically, years later the Whitney Museum of American Art
chose 8 West 8th Street as their first location, just next
door to the first site of the Met.
Taylor Johnson also funded New York University. Founded in
1831 by Jefferson's Secretary of State, Albert Gallatin, NYU
has become our largest neighbor. Today, most of the land around
Washington Square Park is owned by NYU. In 1833, after purchasing
the site of their first building for $40,000.00 and constructing
it, there was insufficient money left to operate the school.
Forced to rent space for income, NYU's tenants included the
noted artist Samuel F.B. Morse who happened to invent and
demonstrate the telegraph on the premises. Morse also experimented
with photography; Mathew Brady the famed photographer of the
Civil War studied under Morse there. Winslow Homer painted
there and Samuel Colt designed his famous pistol there. NYU
continues to grow and flourish, attracting new and talented
people to Greenwich Village.