Residents of New York City’s Greenwich Village consider Washington Square Park their hidden gem. This nearly 10-acre park sits at the end of Fifth Avenue, as it meets Waverly Place, and entry from that side brings visitors through the famous Washington Arch. Buildings on the New York University campus sprawl on all sides of the park, and university students, locals, and visitors relax here, no matter the season. Here’s why it’s worth visiting.
The Washington Arch
The park’s marble arch was originally designed to celebrate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889. Stanford White, one of the most famous architects of the day, was commissioned to design the arch to attract the attention of the Centennial parade organizers and have them route the parade near the park. The original arch, made of wood and plaster, proved so popular that White was paid to create a more permanent structure. The marble arch as it appears today was dedicated in 1895, with the “Washington in War” and “Washington in Peace” statues installed in 1916 and 1918, respectively.
The Hangman’s Elm
Some people say that the English Elm in the northwest corner of the park—known both as “The Hangman’s Elm” and the “Hanging Tree”—is the oldest tree in New York City. The New York City Parks department has said the tree, which stands about 110 feet tall, is more than three centuries old. Legend has it that Revolutionary War traitors were hanged from the tree, as well as convicts housed at nearby Newgate State Prison. Archaeologists have found skeletons when digging in Washington Square Park, but that’s not all that surprising since the park was originally built over a potter’s field for victims of yellow fever in the late 1700s. Whatever its background, the elm is something to behold.
The Renovated Bathrooms
In a city where public bathrooms are few and far between, Washington Square Park’s “Park House” has won accolades, and even two architectural awards. The building opened in 2014 as the third phase of a park remodel, and it houses a storage shed, Park department offices, and public restrooms. Part of its design incorporates upcycled redwood, solar roof panels, and a pump used to extract heat from the ground. While the design is meant to resemble a pergola, many locals say it looks more like a train station. Either way, the amenities help make the park more inviting to visitors.
There are so many things to see and do in lower Manhattan every week, and many of them happen in Washington Square Park. These include dachshund festivals (the park contains dog runs for both small and large dogs), free tours, dance performances, “Films on the Green,” science demonstrations, tai chi and yoga classes, music festivals, tango lessons, and more. While most of these take place in the summer months, Washington Square Park also hosts a Halloween parade and dog costume contest, and assorted winter holidays celebrations. These include a Chanukah menorah lighting, caroling on Christmas Eve, and an annual Christmas tree lighting. Though it’s not as big as its uptown cousin at Rockefeller Center, this tree lighting is worth attending to see the tree in front of Washington Arch, and to join in the night’s communal singing (songbooks are handed out).
A sense of community permeates Washington Square Park not just at Christmas, but on every day of the year. It may not be one of New York City’s top five parks, but it’s certainly worth a visit.