This Day in History: Abingdon Square Becomes a Public Park
One of the most interesting things about New York City’s public parks is the rich history that lies beyond the grass and trees. Abingdon Square, bounded by 8th Avenue, Hudson Street, Bank Street, and West 12th Street, is no exception.
The quarter-acre park was originally part of the Warren Estate. Sir Peter Warren was a royal British naval officer who, by 1744, had purchased a 300-acre farm in the area known as Greenwich. His land stretched from the Hudson River to the Bowery and from Charles Street to West 21st Street. He and his wife Susannah De Lancey lived in a mansion on what is now the block bound by West 4th, Bleecker, Charles, and Perry Streets.
According to a report from the Department of Parks & Recreation:
Their eldest daughter Charlotte married Willoughby Bertie, the Fourth Earl of Abingdon, and a share of the Warren estate was part of her dowry. Her portion included the land that came to be known as Abingdon Square. In 1794 the City Council changed the designation of streets and places with British names in order to reflect American independence. Nonetheless, the name of Abingdon Square was preserved, because the Earl and his wife had sympathized with the American patriots, and he had argued in Parliament against British policy in the colonies. The Goodrich Plan of Manhattan drawn in 1827 depicts Abingdon Square as a trapezoidal parcel between Eighth Avenue and Bank, Hudson, and Troy (later West 12th) Streets.
On March 4, 1831, the Common Council decided that Abingdon Square should be enclosed as a public park and allotted $3,000 toward this undertaking. On April 22, the City acquired the land and by 1836 the park was enclosed by a cast iron fence. Around 1886, then-mayor Abram S. Hewitt initiated a citywide effort to better public access to green spaces. Architect Calvert Vaux was hired to collaborate with the superintendent of parks, Samuel Parsons Jr., on a new design for the park.
Abingdon Square became a center of community life, with public concerts bringing in over 4,000 attendees. These affairs were loved by Village residents and a New York Times article from 1895 at the end of the concert season described how children had taken to singing the chorus of the songs with the band playing in the background. The Square was also a political center of local life. An 1894 Times article recounts an anti-Tammany meeting that was held there by the Women’s Republican Association.
In 1931, prior to the 1969 designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, Abingdon Square lost a beloved group of homes, considered unofficial neighborhood landmarks. The north side of 12th Street, between 8th Avenue and Hudson Street, had been a completely intact row of homes. The New York Times described this row as, “constructed of red brick and with artistic wrought iron balcony railings, the houses have not only always been well kept, but have been occupied by many prominent residents of the ninth ward.” This description may lead one to believe that the homes originally looked like those of Washington Square North. This same article, interestingly, describes what we today might call gentrification. By demolishing these quaint homes and replacing them with a 16-story apartment building, 299 West 12th Street, residents felt that the entire demographic of the neighborhood was changing.
The apartment building was developed by the firm Bing & Bing, one of the most important apartment real estate developers in New York City in the early twentieth century, and designed by the prolific architect Emery Roth, who is known for his many hotels and apartment buildings from the 1920s and 30s that incorporate Art Deco and Beaux-Arts elements. Very recently, 299 West 12th Street has garnered a lot of press for its celebrity resident Jennifer Aniston.
Abingdon Square is also known for its significant memorials. On the afternoon of October 31, 1921, Governor Alfred E. Smith presided over the unveiling of the Abingdon Square Memorial, also known as the Abingdon Square Doughboy, one of nine doughboy statues erected in NYC’s parks to commemorate those lost in World War I. Over 20,000 people gathered in and around Abingdon Square that day. Said the Mayor at the ceremony (as per the NY Times):
I accept this statue so singularly expressive of the spirit of Abingdon Square… As we gaze upon this noble figure, it will ever remind us of the high purposes of a free nation and be a summons to follow the flag that gives to all beneath its protecting folds the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Of all who went forth at the call of their country, none brought more lustre to the shield of America than the men from this quarter of our city, of which Abingdon Square is the center.
Another memorial, in the form of a small garden, was erected in 2009 to honor the passing of Adrienne Shelly. The actress, director, and screenwriter lived and worked at 15 Abingdon Square. On November 1, 2006, her husband found her dead in the apartment from what initially appeared to be a suicide. However, a construction worker who had been working at the apartment below Shelly’s confessed to strangling and hanging her after she had complained of the noise coming from the work below. In August of 2009, the Adrienne Shelley Garden was dedicated on the southeast side of the park, facing the building where Shelly had lived and died.
On a lighter note, Abingdon Square served as the original home of a cooperative artists group called the Abingdon Square Painters, who function as “a space where abstract, representational, and conceptual artists can WORK.” By 1967, the group had outgrown their Village space and moved elsewhere. Today, they are located in the up-and-coming arts scene of Long Island City, but still maintain their original name that pays homage to the creativity of Greenwich Village.
The park is today maintained by the Abingdon Square Alliance, a community group that works in cooperation with the Department of Parks & Recreation. The park is still a vibrant center of neighborhood life with their Saturday greenmarket that has been bringing local farmers and purveyors to the West Village since 1994.