The 1950s plan for a Washington Square Highway

The history of New York City is littered with never-realized proposals: moving sidewalks, a burial ground in Central Park, and these 100-story apartment houses meant for Harlem.

Washingtonsquarenyu1950

Another half-baked idea that (luckily) never got off the ground was a plan for a highway running through Washington Square Park, proposed many times through the 1950s by “master builder” Robert Moses.

Washsquareparkplan1940As Parks Commissioner in 1940, Moses originally wanted to build a “double highway” snaking along the side of Washington Square Park (left).

At the time, a narrow roadway let vehicles go south from Fifth Avenue to Washington Square South (above, in 1950).

That double highway was shot down thanks to opposition from local residents, business owners, and NYU officials. But Moses wasn’t giving up so easily.

Washsquare1950splanIn the early 1950s, he proposed bisecting the park with a 48-foot-wide highway connecting Fifth Avenue to West Broadway—which would be widened and illustriously renamed Fifth Avenue South.

Naturally community leaders were outraged. In 1955, plans were submitted for a “depressed, four-lane highway running through the park in an open cut from Fifth Avenue under the Washington Arch,” wrote The New York Times.

Washsquare1960s“Mothers and children, New York University students and others who use the park would be able to cross from one half of the park to the other by a foot-bridge thirty-six feet wide.”

Again, opposition was fierce. Jane Jacobs led the fight, with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lewis Mumford in her corner.

They were fighting not only the Washington Square Highway plan but another Moses’ idea to raze 14 blocks of prime Greenwich Village real estate and build a series of apartment complexes.

By the end of the decade, Moses retreated. Washington Square Park has been remodeled and revamped, but at least it’s not crisscrossed by a superhighway.

[Photos: the Square in the 1950s and 1960s, New York University Archives]

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14 Responses to “The 1950s plan for a Washington Square Highway”

  1. penelopebianchi Says:

    fascinating! New York City is my favorite to visit as a “decorator” and lover of music and “fun”!

    I have great friends there……..my very favorite for so many years it “scares” me!! “Pale Male” the red-tail hawk who has nested above Central Park for 25 years or so!

    Fascinating!!

    Marie Winn is my favorite author!

    Bravo!!

  2. penelopebianchi Says:

    I knew none of that. I lived in NYC for 9 months in 1969!

    I could not cope. I grew up in Southern California!

    I believe…..(my opinion only) there would be no New York City thriving without Central Park!!!
    Bravo!

  3. Joly MacFie Says:

    Roberta Brandes Gratz goes into some detail on this in her book “The Battle for Gotham” – it was touch and go. Jane Jacobs & co ultimately defeated it on environmental grounds by using Moses’ own inflated traffic projections to indicate that the project would bring a shower of pollution over the supposed newly created green spaces.See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJcHpZj–xs

  4. Sean Sweeney Says:

    Hi,

    I think it’s a great idea you sent these three wonderful posts on a weekend morning. Prior, I’ve noticed that so many of them would arrive on a weekday morning, when the ol’ mailbox begins to bulge with incoming mail and time is otherwise short. Too often I can just skim them.

    Arriving on a Saturday, your readers are afforded more time to read the story and explore the links . You may want to consider this in the future.

    Thanks for all these bits of NY history.

    Sean

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Sean, good point!

  6. RD Wolff Says:

    Thank doG Moses was cut down before he could commit the carnage he had planned which didn’t happen, the highway thru the park and demolitions were just two of them.
    Houston Street was widened around then, with scores of buildings demolished in such a way it left an ugly scar of windowless party wall facades and useless narrow lot remnants along the way from Broadway to the East.
    This guy was a one man architecture disaster.
    I don’t rememebr the other proposed projects I read about that he was going to foist on the city that didn’t get built, but it would have been a disaster if this guy had succeeded.

  7. manhattan resident Says:

    I just wish more of his godawful projects were defeated. NYC is forever scarred by these architectural disasters.

  8. Kazza Says:

    Parks Commissioner should be looking to preserve parks – NOT to destroy them! But I’m sure Moses meant well…. *cue maniacal laughter*

  9. manhattan resident Says:

    Well, at first he thought he did. Later on, he started to believe his own hype.

  10. Beth G Says:

    Pale Male is still around. He fledged three chicks last year and should have another viable nest this year.

    Sadly, the scarring of the city did not end with Moses.

  11. Daily Mercury Chronicle Says:

    […] a highway through Washington Square Park… all in the name of “urban renewal.” Ephemeral NY just revisited the plan, which was proposed in a few different ways through the mid-1950s, but was […]

  12. Peter Kaufman Says:

    Jacobs went on to defeat Moses again, with the Lower Manhattan Expressway. God bless her.

    “But look what we have built low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”

    Jane Jacobs

  13. Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog New York City Says:

    […] A Look at the Robert Moses Plan to Build a Highway Through Washington Square Park (Ephemeral NY) […]

  14. Hekky Catz Says:

    Wish someone would have stopped him with the Cross Bronx and the Belt.

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