Hot stuff! Park benches are unfit to sit, as they hit 125 °F

Few people have the “buns of steel” — make that buns of asbestos — required to sit on Washington Square’s sun-superheated granite benches on hot summer days. Most folks wisely seek rear-end relief on the benches’ tree-shaded areas. Photos by Lincoln Anderson
A temperature reading on one of the benches on Monday using an indoor/outdoor thermometer yielded a scorching “outdoor” temperature of more than 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the “indoor” temperature, which measured the ambient heat, was a high 118 degrees. (Due to the photo’s angle, the red mercury for the “indoor” temperature isn’t clearly shown.)

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Talk about being on the hot seat! On hot, sunny, summer days, the dark granite benches in Washington Square Park reach bun-blistering temperatures.

The classy-looking benches, which ring the famed fountain plaza, were added under the park’s recent hotly debated renovation. And “hot” is definitely the operative word where the new seating is concerned.

The painfully evident fact is not lost on parkgoers, or their posteriors. On high-temperature days during midday, very few people can be seen sitting on the sections of these granite benches that are in direct sunlight. Instead, parkgoers can be found clustered under the sections of the benches that are shaded by trees. Meanwhile, the park’s sandstone fountain and traditional wooden benches, when exposed to strong sunlight, don’t heat up excessively and parkgoers can be seen sitting on them during the hottest part of the day.

On Monday, at 1:40 p.m., The Villager took a reading with a thermometer on one of the granite benches and, on the “outdoor” scale, it registered a tush-torching 125 degrees Fahrenheit! It wasn’t even particularly hot outside, with the temperature at that time, according to wunderground.com, being about 82 degrees.

(A knowledgeable stock clerk at the Nuthouse 24-hour hardware store on E. 29th St. said the key to an accurate reading would be to put the thermometer’s bulb on the bench surface. Fortunately, the $7 indoor/outdoor thermometer that was used had — for the “outdoor” reader — an external wire with a metal piece at its tip that could be placed directly onto the bench surface. The “indoor” reading, which measured the “ambient” temperature, was also very high, around 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Both readings were literally “off the chart,” surpassing the thermometer’s highest marked reading of 100 degrees, though there were hash marks above 100 degrees indicating what the temperature was. The Nuthouse clerk suggested he also had an infrared gun that could measure the bench’s temperature by shooting a beam at it, but that was too pricey at $60.)

However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the combination of strong sunlight and the benches’ dark, heat-absorbing color creates a powerful rump-roasting effect.

This startling effect was seen in action when, as The Villager was taking the bench’s temperature, two New York University Law School students sat down a few feet away on a sun-seared section of the seating to eat their deli takeout.

As soon as she took her seat, Hélène Sironneau, 24, could be heard quietly uttering something in surprise and her face registered a slightly shocked look. She immediately touched the bench’s surface with her hand to check how hot it was.

The bench is really blazing, right? she was asked.

“Yeah, I burned my ass! You can quote me if you want,” she said.

The thermometer’s metal cord took a direct reading of the bench’s surface temperature.

Her friend, Dennis Berkel, 21, offered that the bench’s temperature was so cooking that, “I think you can fry an egg [on it] — maybe not boil the water.”

Sirroneau added the park’s designers should have foreseen how hot the dark-colored, stone benches would get.

“I’m surprised they didn’t think about that,” she said.

Asked if the seriously hot seating could ignite an injury lawsuit, law student Sirroneau said, “If you sit there without pants, obviously you could have one.”

(Note to crusties who might have holes in their pants.)

The benches’ surface temperature on hot days does seem to be in the range that could cause a minor burn if exposed skin were left in contact with it for more than a few minutes.

Like Berkel, cooking an egg on one of the benches had also crossed a reporter’s mind. The benches’ have such a nice, smooth surface, after all. One could just imagine an egg cooking on it, sunny side up — under the sun.

However, according to Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” an egg fries at 260 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, Nye says on his blog entry “So Hot, You Could Fry an Egg,” an egg can cook at temperatures as low as 130 degrees, though it would take about 20 minutes. So, yes, it sounds like an egg could be cooked, if not fried, on one of the burning benches. (Note again to crusties.)

About a month ago, The Villager asked a Parks Department spokesperson about the buttocks-broiling benches. It had not been a superhot day then, with temperatures only in the 80s — but again, people could be seen avoiding the sunny sections of the granite benches on that particular day, and a reporter had been unable to endure sitting on one of them for long. The reporter made the mistake of calling the benches “black.”

“The granite is gray, not black,” Philip Abramson said. “This has only been a problem during an extreme heat wave such as the one from last week.  As the new trees mature, the benches will be in shade and the temperatures will dramatically decrease. The newly planted eight Zelkova trees will become significant in size. They tend to grow large and wide. These trees will cast shade around the entire ring of the plaza area where we have granite seating and benches. The fountain will remain in the sun though.”

Well, those Zelkovas better grow fast, or there will be more cooking in Washington Square — of buns, and maybe eggs too.

The upside of the backside-braising benches can be felt, literally, in the fall, when the warming effect is welcome.

“You come out here on an October day, they’re nice in the fall — you get a little heat,” said Jim Dasbach, who works at Greenwich Village Animal Hospital on Hudson St.

Kyler James, a tarot card reader/psychic counselor known as “The Wizard of Washington Square,” is one of the few parkgoers who can bear being on the sun-blasted benches during the hottest part of the day. But it’s not because of his extraordinary psychic powers; he uses a trick.

“I’m sitting on my cape — instead of wearing it,” he noted when interviewed in the park on July 10. “And this is not even that hot outside today,” he added. “If it’s in the 90s — forget about it.”

Sharon Woolums, a fierce critic of the Washington Square Park renovation project, said she calls the granite slabs “the mausoleum benches,” and not only for their distinctive look.

“It’s fitting because it represents the death of the park,” she said.

As well as glute grillers, the benches are also cheek chillers, she noted.

“They’re not only hot as hell in the summer, but cold as ice in the winter. And there’s glue dripping down the sides, which is ugly as sin.”

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