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What’s Happening on Washington Mews?

One of the resources that GVSHP offers to the community is its Preservation Watch program- a way to help ensure that serious landmarks violations are reported and the landmarks law enforced, and to preserve our neighborhoods’ historic integrity.

Lately, we have been receiving numerous inquiries and complaints about the work being done on the roadbed of Washington Mews.  As anyone who has walked by in recent weeks has noticed, cobblestones are being dug up and concrete is being laid.

Given how iconic and historically significant this street is, and given that the work is being done by NYU — known for its less than stellar record when it comes to keeping their word or being respectful of the history of our neighborhood — GVSHP has been closely monitoring and investigating what’s happening on Washington Mews…

To put the current work in appropriate context, we’ll first provide a little history about Washington Mews.  This historic enclave runs from 5th Avenue to University Place between Washington Square North and East 8th Street, and is a private street owned by NYU and bordered by buildings containing housing, offices, and facilities for the university.  In the 18th Century this land was owned by Captain Robert Richard Randall, a noted sea captain and philanthropist who, upon his death in 1801, bequeathed his estate to Sailors Snug Harbor for the building of an institution to care for aged seamen.  According to Christopher Gray, though, “When Capt. Richard Randall died in 1801, he left his large farm north of Washington Square to be improved with a home for elderly and disabled sailors. But Sailors’ Snug Harbor, as the institution became known, never followed Randall’s plan for the property; instead, it leased the land for long terms to people building their houses and used the income to establish its huge complex in Staten Island.”

L: a 1939 view of the University Place entrance to the Mews (courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery); R: the same view in 2011

According to the 1969 Greenwich Village Historic District designation report, “the rows of low-lying two-story houses at Washington Mews give the impression of a charming urban village, maintained with pride and care and enjoying an usual amount of light and air, and isolation from city traffic.  There is a cobbled street and a gate at the west end.  The name “Mews” indicates that most of the cottages were stables, and this origin is readily discernible on the north side. However, the south side, near Fifth Avenue, was built in the Twentieth Century as a row of ten dwellings of uniformly low height, thus conforming to the spirit of the block. These replaced the unusually deep rear gardens and extensions of the
Washington Square houses.”

Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when NYU applied to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to reconstruct the streetbed and sidewalks of the Mews (you can review this and all other applications for major changes to landmarked sites in our neighborhoods on our Landmarks Applications Webpage).  This application was approved on the grounds that the section near 5th Avenue that was already concrete not be extended and that all preexisting cobblestone be replaced.

Boards from the LPC hearing in 2010

The past few weeks, though, as work has been occurring rapidly, many neighbors voiced concerns to us that the concrete was extended, encroaching upon the previously cobblestoned areas.

Not wanting to simply rely upon either NYU or the Landmarks Preservation Commission to discern what exactly was going on, we set about to independently verify where concrete and cobblestones were being placed now as compared to where they were before the work began.

We are happy to report that, as you can see from the pre-construction photo of the Mews below and a photo taken today, the line where the cobblestone ends and the concrete begins is exactly the same, approximately in front of #’s 64 and 62 Washington Mews, the two buildings on the north side of the mews directly east of 2 Fifth Avenue.  Like many neighbors, upon walking by we also thought it looked a little off and the concrete seemed much more prominent than it had previously.  But this appears to be merely a consequence of the brightness of the new concrete as compared to the more grayed and weathered concrete it replaced.

Of course when it comes to our precious landmarks, it is always better to be safe than sorry, and GVSHP is always happy to investigate!

L: pre-construction; R: today. As you can see, the concrete ends at the same exact spot.

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