A Hanging Ground, Potter's Field, & Parade Ground

For almost 30 years, Washington Square Park was a potter's field used by New York City to bury criminals and the homeless. It also served as an execution place where prisoners were hung from a huge Elm tree, one of the oldest trees in Manhattan. Buried here also are numerous New Yorkers who died during the deadly yellow fever epidemics from 1797 to 1803. And, the site became a military parade ground in 1826 a year before it officially became a park.

The park's most prominent feature is the Washington Square Arch, designed by the renown architect Stanford White who grew up in this Village neighborhood. It was built in 1889 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President. The arch was to have been a temporary tribute but was so popular that a permanent marble structure replaced it.

Located in the Village at the very end of Fifth Avenue, the Washington Square neighborhood was first home to wealthy New Yorkers whose brownstones often contained stables for their horses and carriages. The neighborhood was 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 brought Washington Square to national attention in his Washington Square novel which became the 1949 film, The Heiress. James resided 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. He 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 here as did artist Edwin Hopper. New York University, established in 1831, now owns many buildings in this section of the Village.

Judson Memorial Church was also designed by Stanford White, which is at the south end of the park. White based the design of the church's tower on the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. The church's hooded doorway was based on those of the Alberti's basilica of Saint Andrea in Mantua. Judson Memorial is a beautiful example of Italian Renaissance design and was built to honor Adoniran Judson, the first American foreign missionary (who served in Burma).

John La Farge (1835 - 1910), Tiffany’s main competitor in stained glass, designed this church's 17 stained glass windows. The church’s mission was to aid the immigrants in its neighborhood. It has often focused on controversial social issues by serving runaway teenagers, persons with AIDS and those with drug problems. Judson Memorial played a role in the artistic development of the community by providing space for art exhibitions, a dance theatre, the provocative Living Theatre, and political performances.

Only a short walk from Washington Square Park on Bleecker Street is The Church of Our Lady of Pompeii, which was built for a congregation of Italian-American immigrants. Its design was based on a Southern Italian model. Mother Cabrini (Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini), an Italian immigrant and America’s first saint (the patron saint of immigrants) worshipped there.

The potter's field of modern NYC is on Hart Island, in Long Island Sound in the northeastern section of the Bronx. The Hart Island Project is a traveling museum that tells the stories of some of the people who have been buried there.