A Photographic History of Washington Square

By Keith Allison | May 19, 2018

Philomathean Hall, inside the University Building, 1894. Part of the New York University Archives Photograph Collection.

Explore 190 Years of NYU, West Village, and New York History with Digital Library Technology Services

Did you know there was a time when the NYU Physics Lab was heated by a potbelly stove in the middle of the classroom? Or that the majority of the University was at one time contained in a single building, called the University Building, that used to stand where the modern-day Silver Center now sits? Or that the 8th St-NYU subway stop used to have candy vending machines mounted to every pole?

You can take a trip back through the history of Washington Square Park, the NYU buildings around it, and the surrounding neighborhood by visiting the Washington Square Photo Collection, curated by Digital Library Technology Services (DLTS). The collection, housed online as well as in the Bobst Library Special Collections, is a visual history of the area in which NYU grew up, dating as far back as 1830 and including illustrations, blueprints, and photos. The archive is the result of a combined effort that includes contributions from the NYU Photo Bureau, founded in 1952, and New York partners such as the New York Historical SocietyThe Museum of the City of New York, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

The archive is a unique and entertaining opportunity to look back in time and explore what the area around NYU and Washington Square Park looked like when the StudentLink Center was a Tower Video, Bobst Library and Warren Weaver Hall had not yet been built, and there was no such thing as a Starbucks. In true New York fashion, the most striking revelation contained within the collection is how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. This is true of architecture as well as fashion. The collection contains many photos of people, both students and neighborhood residents, providing a candid timeline of fashion trends throughout the decades—more than a few of which have come back in style (though not, to date, attending class in a suit and tie).

Also interesting is the chance to peer back at the classrooms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The University Building was completed in 1834 and served for many decades as the central hub of NYU. Designed in the Gothic Revival style popular at the time by architects Ithiel Town, Alexander Jackson Davis, and James Dakin, and NYU engineering professor David B. Douglass, it’s difficult to believe today that the building was initially too large for the existing student body. Class space and laboratories rubbed elbows with dorm rooms and studios and labs rented to artists and researchers (including Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse Code). That abundance of space didn’t last, of course, and as the 19th century drew to a close, the population of students, faculty, and staff had outgrown the University Building. Much of the campus was shifted to a location in the Bronx and the University Building itself was demolished in 1894. The Washington Square Photo Collection captures both illustrations and photographs of the structure’s exterior and interior.

Washington Square Park itself, that integral part of the NYU campus, is also featured prominently in the collection. These photos include a number of stunning aerial shots that take in the changing New York skyline as well as extensive shots of the sun seekers and street performers that lend the park so much of its character. As the winter finally, reluctantly, releases its grip, students and residents once again flock to the park to enjoy the weather. Sifting through the many photos contained in the photo collection—especially as the academic year comes to a close and commencement (which used to be held in Washington Square Park) approaches—is a fun way to expand one’s perspective of the park, the campus, and the neighborhood while enjoying acrobatic dancers, blooming flowers, and vegetarian dosas in the spring sun.

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