So… *is* the Washington Square Park Fountain aligned to the Arch?

irony or... poetic justice, perhaps?

irony or... poetic justice, perhaps?

There’s been a lot of under-the-radar discussion about whether the Washington Square Park Fountain is actually aligned with the Arch.  

This has been a topic of discord since it was first announced a few years back that the Bloomberg Administration intended to move the famous fountain in its location since the 1870’s and in the exact center of the park in that spot23 feet east to line up with the Arch at Fifth Avenue.  The relocation of the Fountain also led to the destruction of seven of the eight trees that lined the Fountain Plaza because they were in the way (note:  two of the replacement trees are already dying or dead – more on that another day).

Having reviewed a lot of the history of the redesign and controversy around it, there was pretty much close to no one, other than designer George Vellonakis, who thought this was important.  It’s never been clear if it was solely the landscape designer’s whim or a directive from elsewhere.  

However, someone determined early on in Washington Square Park’s history (1870’s), when the fountain was first placed, that it should be located in the center of the Park on its east-west axis.  It’s not obvious symmetry but it makes sense.  It works.  To just obliterate this history – on top of the fact that park users liked where it was – seemed wrong when first announced and still does now.

And you have to wonder about the NYC Art Commission (now called the Design Commission – as of July ’08) which gave the approval on moving the Fountain.  What was their criteria?  … Then again they are ALL appointed by the Mayor.

I first published a post on whether the Fountain and Arch were misaligned in August of last year while the Park was still under construction after seeing the above photo.  The photographer, J.Bary, later wrote in saying he’d watched them meticulously figure out where the center was and that it’s the angle from which the photo was taken that makes it look unaligned.  

But when you’re on the Fountain Plaza, it does look a bit, um, off.

At the Phase I Grand Opening Ceremony May 28th of this year, I overheard someone from the NYC Parks Department say he was surprised that no one had said anything about the Fountain not being aligned with the Arch.  (I don’t know that he was confirming this, or just saying that they’d probably gotten some comments like that.)  I’ve heard other people mention this tho’ since then, and then, on August 5th of this year, WSP Blog reader named Steve wrote in as follows:

Is anyone ever going to admit that the fountain is now aligned to nothing — not the center of the park as it was before, not the arch and not 5th Avenue? What was the point of moving it?!?!?! It is NOT aligned to either the arch or the avenue.

The only stated reason George Vellonakis has given on the record for moving the Fountain is that it makes a better shot for tourists to take back home with them.  Putting that aside as not a very good reason… If the Fountain is now not in the center of the park (as it was for over 100 years) and if it’s not aligned with the Arch… what was the whole point?


Original August 7th, 2008 WSP Blog entry:  Wouldn’t it be ironic if – after everything – the Washington Square Park Fountain was off-center to the Arch?

Photo:  J. Bary

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