“It was almost the last outbreak of passion of her life; at least, she never indulged in another that the world knew anything about. But this one was long and terrible; she flung herself on the sofa and gave herself up to her grief.”
—from Washington Square
The history of New York's Washington Square reflects the growth of the nation and the evolution of America's most populated city. During the 1600s, the area—a Native American village—was marshland fed by the Minetta Brook. In the late 1700s the area still lay outside the city limits and became a “potter's field,” a place for the burial of unknown or penniless people and for those who died of contagious disease. Though the area wasn't used as a cemetery after the city bought the land in 1826, thousands remain buried beneath the park's monuments and tree-lined sidewalks.
The city first operated the land as a military parade ground named after the great Revolutionary War general and first president of the United States, George Washington. The surrounding area became one of the most desirable addresses in all of Manhattan. As the neighborhood grew, the land was turned into a park. Greek Revival mansions like that of the Sloper family in Washington Square were built overlooking the grounds allowing those that could afford it to escape the congestion of the downtown area.
In 1889, a wooden arch was erected in the park to commemorate the centennial of the presidential inauguration of George Washington. In 1892, the arch was replaced with a marble arch designed by New York architect Stanford White, who modeled the arch after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Though erected long after the fictional Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend would have strolled along the park's paths, the arch is Washington Square's most iconic monument.
Today Washington Square Park rests at the base of busy Fifth Avenue, surrounded by New York University (NYU) in the trendy neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Outdoor chess tables and Scrabble boards encourage competitive tournaments and attract onlookers. College students lounge on park benches reading textbooks while neighborhood residents walk their dogs. On the north side the mansions of old New York stand sentry, reminding visitors of a time when young ladies like Catherine Sloper entertained suitors in parlors overlooking the park.