The Ghost of Preservation Battles Past: The House of Genius

“Doorway of 61 Washington Square Park” New York Bound Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 1945.

“Doorway of 61 Washington Square Park” New York Bound Collection, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 1945.

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 (in fact Crane drafted his masterpiece Civil War novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ while living at 61 Washington Square South). The demolition of the House of Genius and Genius Row was one of the Village’s earliest preservation battles.

The demolition of Washington Square South, between MacDougal and Sullivan Street, adjacent to Genius Row. From the GVSHP Historic Image Archive www.archive.gvshp.org.

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.

Washington Sq. So. btw. MacDougal and Sullivan Streets being demolished ca. 1948, from the GVSHP Historic Image Archive, www.archive.gvshp.org.

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.

Genius Row from Washington Square Park, photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Genius Row from Washington Square Park, photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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.

Washington Square South between MacDougal and Sullivan Streets after demolition, awaiting construction of NYU Law School, ca. 1949. From GVSHP Historic Image Archive www.archive.gvshp.org.

To see all the images in the GVSHP Historic Image Archive, click here.  The GVSHP images shown above appear in the New York Bound and Nat Kaufman collections.

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Sheryl

Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP’s Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.