Why the plan to move Wash. Sq. fountain is all wet

By Luther Harris

As the author of the book on Washington Square, I’m perhaps best able to explain its significance and what’s about to be lost in the upcoming renovation.

The square’s original 1826 design gave us formality appropriate for its time: geometrical pathways, greenery and fence, a humdrum version of squares in Paris and London. This square of Henry James sported a wood fence and walks lined with ailanthus trees — nothing fancy. An iron fence and fountain arrived in 1852 as the neighborhood became increasingly chic. And by locating the fountain where it is (centered on a line connecting Fifth Ave. with Thompson St.), the fountain happened to mark the spot where the potter’s field gallows had stood. This established the fountain, glorified by later events, as by far the most historic Village site.

Redesigned in 1869 under Olmsted’s naturalistic design theory, the square gained curvilinear pathways and plazas and lost its iron fence, but acquired acres of roadway between Fifth Ave. and Thompson St. The fountain, as situated, fit nicely as the middle element in the plan for three asymmetric main plazas. Stanford White’s 1895 arch and the fountain were not intended to be aligned and the pair soon became the square’s signature ensemble and one of the icons of New York.

In the 1970 redesign, the current one, the best features of 1826, 1869 and 1895 were included and, to the neighborhood’s great relief, the roadway was eliminated. A brilliant feature was added in the freed-up area around the fountain, the sunken performance space — a theater-in-the-round. Its low rim and shallow depth defined the stage and shielded it from the square’s other users. It memorialized the earlier folk singers, protest groups and the Beats who had gathered around the fountain, and its impromptu performers have delighted visitors and neighborhood residents alike for decades. It was modeled on and is both larger and more popular than its sister space, Bethesda Terrace, the centerpiece of Central Park. As a cultural landmark and a wonderful example of modern landscape design, the fountain area should be preserved.

The 1970 design drew from the square’s character as a combination village green, theater and tourist mecca. The design team recognized that the square had become more of a plaza, emphasizing the interplay of people, of people-watchers and performers, than a sedate square with leisurely strollers and people sitting on benches looking at flowers. All within the sunken fountain area become actors on a minimalist stage set. That design remains powerfully relevant. For 135 years the square has been Olmstedian in spirit with modern enhancements — the period when the square became the New York legend we know.

However, the insensitive Parks Department wants the retro look and feel of an old town square and inappropriate classical symmetry, a bogus interpretation of history. The fountain will be raised to grade level and centered on the arch. In doing so, the square’s eccentric layout will be lost, the site of the old gallows will become anonymous and the performance and gathering space, a monument to the raucous counterculture that has made the square world famous, will be wantonly destroyed. Parks’s planned use of portable stages is no alternative and much of the spontaneous activity will be killed along with the rest of the square’s unique character.

White’s arch and fountain created one of the city’s most beautiful views through the arch to White’s Judson Church and campanile. This magnificent perspective, which was captured in the firm’s favorite portrait of the arch, will also be lost in the planned renovation that shifts the fountain eastward. By 1970 the arch and off-center fountain had become the square’s most identifying feature and a beloved city icon, which the crafters of the redesign at that time didn’t even consider changing. As one of them later said: “We’re American, misaligned and proud of it.”

With the fountain restored in place, where it’s been for a century and a half, it will be grandfathered and not require state-of-the-art handicap access. No one has complained about access to the sunken-fountain performance space; indeed, people including the handicapped and elderly love it. Also, Parks’s proposed fence violates the Olmsted tradition and the square’s feeling of openness and connection with its neighborhood. And it’s unnecessary; 24-hour surveillance cameras and undercover cops make the square the safest and best-policed public space in the city, night and day.

The proposal to move the fountain and install a fence have outraged the community, and rightly so. Parks’s design should go back to the drawing board, but at least these discordant elements should be dropped. Some favoring the Parks design, many on Community Board 2, seem to fear that if Parks doesn’t get its way, it will pull out, leaving the shopworn square without its much-needed repairs. Architects remain docile or risk losing work. Others may welcome a return to the mid-19th century. But the vast majority doesn’t want the square’s historic layout changed or to have its spontaneous spirit, as The New York Times put it, “gussied to death in the name of renovation.”

Harris is the author of “Around Washington Square” and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Washington Square renovation plan.