WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK, one of Manhattan’s loveliest parks, was once a burial ground and a potter’s field used by New York City to bury criminals and the homeless.  Many New Yorkers, who died during the yellow fever epidemics from 1797 to 1803, were also buried here.  Located in the Village at the very end of Fifth Avenue, the neighborhood was first home to wealthy New Yorkers whose brownstones often contained stables for their horses and carriages.  Washington Square Park, named in honor of George Washington, also served as an execution site.  A huge Elm in the park was a hanging tree where prisoners were hung and then buried in a nearby cemetery.  Two of the elms in the park are over 300 years old and are said to be the oldest trees in Manhattan.   JUDSON MEMORIAL CHURCH (top), designed by Stanford White, is see here through the trees of the park and is located at the park's south end.

Prominent in the park is the Washington Square Arch which was designed by the prominent architect Stanford White, one of the founders of McKim, Mead, and White, and built in 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration as President.  The arch was to be a temporary tribute (of plaster and wooden lathing) but was so popular that it was replaced by a permanent marble structure.  White, himself, grew up in this Village neighborhood and in his adult life built a house for himself lived in the Gramercy Park neighborhood.  In addition to White's design for Judson Memorial Church, he also designed the second Madison Square Garden, the New York Herald Building, and the Metropolitan Club and Century Club.    

These Federal-styled houses (bottom) illustrate how the area around Washington Square Park originally looked.  The Washington Square neighborhood developed in the 1830s with the construction of Greek revival houses and became the “first fashionable residential area in New York.”  Cornelius Vanderbilt had a four-story red brick home at 10 Waverly Place with a carriage house and stables in the back. There were three overlapping communities in the Village of the early 20th Century:  the upper class, the Irish and Italian immigrants living in tenements and “a small group of intellectuals, writers, and artists.” The American novelist, Henry James, lived in this neighborhood and made Washington Square famous in his WASHINGTON SQUARE novel which became the 1949 film, The Heiress  (with Olivia De Havilland and Montgomery Clift).  James lived in Europe for over two decades and on a return visit to New York City in 1906 was appalled by the changes to the neighborhood and compared the City’s skyscrapers –small in comparison to today’s – to “the teeth of a comb or pins protruding from a cushion.”   Novelists Edith Wharton and John dos Passos also lived in this area along with the artist Edwin Hopper.  In 1907 Wharton, who wrote about the old and affluent New York City society in such books as The Age of Innocence, would leave New York City to live in France until her death in 1937.  Today, New York University, which was established in 1831, owes many buildings in this section of the Village.

The potter's field of modern NYC is on an island, Hart Island, in Long Island Sound (opposite City Island) and near the borough of the Bronx.