History of 22 Washington Square

22 Washington Square, the home of the Straus Institute, the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization, and the Jean Monnet Center for International & Regional Economic Law & Justice – and its surrounds of Washington Square Park and The Row – have a fascinating history that is all New York, and which befits the home of great minds and law-and-justice-related ideas.

Washington Square Park and “The Row”

In 1797, New York City’s Common Council acquired the land that is now New York’s Washington Square Park for use as a “Potter’s Field”, or common burial ground.  The field was also used for public executions, giving rise to the tale of the Hangman’s Elm which stands in the northwest corner of the park.  The site was used as the Washington Military Parade Ground in 1826, and became a public park in 1827.  Following this designation, a number of wealthy and prominent families, escaping the disease and congestion of downtown Manhattan, moved into the area and built the distinguished Greek Revival mansions that still line the Square’s north side.  In 1835, Washington Square Park hosted the first public demonstration of the telegraph by Samuel F.B. Morse, a professor at New York University.  New York University has been located on the Square since the 1830s, and occupies the late-nineteenth century buildings on the east, as well as structures of more recent vintage on the south.

22 Washington Square is one of the stretch of 13 grand town houses that grace the north side of the Square, known as “The Row”.   Considered among the finest Greek Revival dwellings in New York, the houses on The Row were planned as high-end housing and built all together between 1829 and 1833.  The Row’s developers leased property from Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a seamen’s charitable organization that owned acreage north of the park. The first seven houses were completed within two years, with the other six following shortly after.

The prestigious houses on The Row are built of red brick in Flemish bond, with entrances flanked by Ionic and Doric columns, and marble balustrades.  Their first occupants were leading merchants, bankers, statesmen and military officers whose families formed a rigid social caste, later evoked in Henry James’s 1881 novel ”Washington Square.”  Indeed, one of the houses on The Row provided the setting for the novel.

The homes on The Row, with their luxurious appointments and elegant rear gardens, were an instant hit with haute New York; for the ensuing quarter-century, histories of the Square indicate that “Washington Square was the place to be.” By the end of the 19th century, the north side continued to attract rich and leading citizens, while the south side (now New York University) was populated with immigrants living in tenement houses.

Soon after the creation of the Department of Public Parks in 1870, the Square was redesigned and improved by M.A. Kellogg, Engineer-in-Chief, and I.A. Pilat, Chief Landscape Gardener. The marble Washington Arch was built between the years 1890 and 1892 to replace the popular wooden arch erected in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s inauguration.
By 1939, however, when the last of the leases of the houses on The Row – from owners Sailors’ Snug Harbor, the seamen’s charitable organization – expired, society had decamped.  The Village became a bohemian bastion struggling through the Great Depression. The Row’s owners, therefore – in a move considered by architectural historians to be shocking – converted the first seven of the original town houses into a single rental-apartment block. The renovation preserved the buildings to a depth of 25 feet, then replaced the remaining structure with five floors of grimly institutional corridors that run the length of all seven houses – although not 22 Washington Square, the home of the Straus Institute, which has been beautifully renovated.

22 Washington Square

The Institute’s building, 22 Washington Square, itself has a fascinating history and set of inhabitants.

The house was originally built for Edmund Wilkes, an attorney.  It was later owned by John Jay, the grandson and namesake of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  During Mr. Jay’s ownership, on February 28, 1878, the house was the original meeting place of the Thursday Evening Club, a conservative social club meant to bring together the intellectual character from Columbia College with the social character of Washington Square.  The house was also home to the Russian Consulate during the early twentieth century, roughly between 1910 and 1915.

22 Washington Square was home to Edgar and Leonora Speyer from 1919 to 1936.  The house was purchased by Mr. Speyer in 1919 for $22,000.  Mr. Speyer was a banker and a former British Baron and member of the British Privy Council, but resigned these posts due to criticism received during World War I.  Mrs. Speyer was a professional violinist and winner of the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, for “Fiddler’s Farewell.”  Mrs. Speyer attempted to remodel the house into apartments in 1936, following her husband’s death, but was denied the right to do so.

The house was acquired by New York University in 1939 to house a new faculty club; and was designated a historic landmark in the Greenwich Village Historic District on April 29, 1969.  While owned by New York University, the house most recently hosted the University’s Admissions department.  The house was then designated as the home of the Straus Institute, and renovations to this end commenced in June 2008.


Research by Lauren Gambier