Author Henry James was born around the corner from Washington Square, on Washington Place, in 1843.
That’s about when Washington Square was in its prime: a wealthy enclave of Federal-style townhouses inhabited by upper-class families. The townhouses surrounded a new park that had served as a marshland, public gallows, and potter’s field.
The refined Square of the mid-1800s is the setting of one of James’ best novels, Washington Square. In this story of a domineering doctor, his witless daughter, and the young man who may or may not be marrying her for her money, the narrator describes the Square as “the ideal of quiet and genteel retirement.”
“The ideal of quiet and genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of white marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble.”
This sketch depicts Washington Square Park in the 1880s, decades after James’ novel is set there. On the right is the original Gothic-style building put up by New York University in 1837. In the center, partially obscured by trees, are the Federal-style townhouses described by James, many of which still stand.