61 Washington Square South, before it was demolished in 1948, was known as the House of Genius, part of the so-called genius row named for the artists and writers who made the red brick houses between West Broadway (now LaGuardia Place) and Thompson Street home for the latter half of the twentieth century. Number 61 was leased by a woman named Madame Blanchard, who converted the single family dwelling into a boarding house for writers, artists, and musicians. Notable residents of the building included Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Alan Seeger, and Stephen Crane. The demolition of the House of Genius and Genius Row was one of the Village’s earliest preservation battles.
In fact, the struggle to preserve Genius Row was taking place at the same time as a battle against New York University’s proposed new Law School building. For more information about the construction of NYU’s Law School building, check out this earlier OFF THE GRID post. Before a location for the new Law School building was announced, Villagers had formed the Save the Washington Square Committee, in order to protect the residential character of Washington Square South. In the middle of this battle, a developer named Anthony Campagna bought the houses known as Genius Row (just East of the Law School site) with plans to build a high-rise apartment building. Despite organizing by Bishop William Manning (who was also working to prevent the Law School development) to convert the row houses into an art center where artists could live and work, the developer was able to secure eviction rights and demolition permits. The idea of a live-work space would later come to fruition in the landmarked Westbeth Artists Residence in the West Village.
Sadly, Campagna abandoned plans for the building after demolition was already complete. He eventually sold the property to New York University, at the suggestion of a city official. Not unsurprisingly, NYU’s acquisition of the site fueled the anger of those Villagers who were fighting the erection of the new Law building.
It seems that the past is repeating itself. NYU is currently presenting its massive twenty-year expansion plan through the public approval process. And again, the Village, this time along with the GVSHP, is fighting back.