Two Letters on Washington Sq Park’s New Design

Sharon Woolums’ Letter to the Editor in weekly the Villager (June 3rd, 2009):

To The Editor:

After the initial euphoria of just having the park opened and reveling in the perfect spring day, I reflected on where the $13 million went, and now realize what disturbs me. I miss the sunken fountain, so beautifully set apart from the street. Now the fountain is an extension of the street, instead of the beginning of something completely different. You felt drawn down — invited into the fountain. Now it’s more like the fountain is an object you are supposed to look at instead of being drawn into, to experience.

The redesigned park looks like something imposed on the Village, boring and uneventful: flattened out. The fountain area, bland and generic, instead of exciting and unique, looks more like a corporate plaza than a park. The huge walkway with the gigantic planters in the middle looks like an outdoor mall in Wisconsin. And that poor tree around the fountain, died of a heartache.

Now linear — before idiosyncratic; there was an off-centeredness that was deliberate. It represented people who live in the Village who march to a different drummer. Our park embodied democracy, now transformed undemocratically.

The landscaping is prissy, organized patches of vegetation not unlike that found in the gardening section of any Home Depot. But it all goes so well with N.Y.U.’s Kimmel Center. The park now looks like another N.Y.U. project, with the two telltale plaques on either side of the “Tisch! Fountain.” I can’t bring myself to say that. Too bad the fountain hadn’t been auctioned off to the highest bidder. It seems a $2.5 million advertisement for perpetuity is just dirt cheap.

The walls that surrounded the theater in the round created an acoustical field for the music; sound bounced back out, radiating from behind. Now there is nothing to deflect the music, it all gets meshed together with the competing sound of gushing water.

With the stroke of an architect’s pen, the park was forever stripped of its bohemian character, wiping away decades of history. We hope this sacrifice of comfort and possible clamoring for a conservancy (the privatization of our public park) will not kill the spontaneous creativity that happened naturally here, once upon a time. We hope that glorious time will not die like the tree in the circle.

Sharon Woolums

(WSP Blog note- the letter is slightly shortened for space reasons.)

Photographer Stacy Walsh Rosenstock wrote in to WSP Blog recently about the new design in response to an older post, “Wouldn’t it be ironic if – after everything – the Washington Square Park Fountain was off-center to the Arch?“:

As someone whose dog insists we Washington Square on a daily basis now that the weather’s good, I find that nothing seems to look “right” when we enter from the South.

In the older design, with the fountain to the west and more open space coming up from Thompson Street, there was a more gradual lead-in to the circle. Now the path certainly looks skewed and, in photos, it’s nearly impossible to form a visual grid of major planes.

Sometimes designs that appear so perfect on paper don’t necessarily work out in three dimensional visual space. Or maybe Stanford White and others involved in the park’s major features knew a thing or two about dealing with asymetrical space.

Photo: Cat

Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park — Home to Two Stanford White-designed structures

I went by Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn over the weekend. The Urban Park Rangers in the Fort Greene Park Visitors Center told me a bit of the park’s history. They informed me that Stanford White, principal of McKim, Mead & White (noted NYC architects in the early 20th century) and renowned architect of the Washington Square Park Arch (and Judson Church, among others), was also the designer of the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument (pictured) and the Visitor Center/Rest Rooms, a building the American Institute of Architecture apparently refers to as “the most elegant outhouse in the world.”

Fort Greene Park is quite a treasure and a well-utilized park. Nothing too bohemian or out of the ordinary happens there but it has its purpose as a place you go to just … be. (Or play basketball or tennis!) It’s pure park vs. a more “public space” like Washington Square where things … happen in public. (No performances or protest appear to occur regularly at Fort Greene Park.) And while Washington Square Park is just (under) 10 acres, Fort Greene Park is a bit over 30.

The only unfortunate thing about Fort Greene Park is that it appears entirely ruled by the private Fort Greene Conservancy, to the point where you’d (almost) never know it was part of the New York City Park System!

Some background on the Park from the Parks Department: During the battle of Long Island, in the late 1700’s, “the British held thousands of captives on prison ships anchored in the East River. Over 11,500 men and women died of overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease aboard the ships, and their bodies were hastily buried along the shore. These brave patriots represented all thirteen colonies and at least thirteen different nationalities. In 1808 the remains of the prison ship martyrs were buried in a tomb on Jackson Street (now Hudson Avenue), near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Brooklyn fort was renamed for General [Nathanael] Greene and rebuilt for the War of 1812. When the threat of war passed, locals enjoyed visiting the grounds of the old fort for recreation and relaxation. The City of Brooklyn designated the site for use as a public park in 1845, and [Brooklyn Daily Eagle] newspaper editor Walt Whitman rallied popular support for the project. In 1847 the legislature approved an act to secure land for Washington Park on the site of the old fort.”

The Monument for the prison ship martyrs (there is a crypt underneath with their bodies), erected in 1908, was the last building Stanford White designed. He did not live to see it built. He was shot to death in 1906 by his (ex) young mistresses’ husband on the roof of Madison Square Garden, a building he also designed (a previous version, not the one standing now).

Fort Greene Park was first named Washington Park; the original master plan was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (architects behind Central Park and Prospect Park among many notable works) in 1864.

Photos: Cat