Site of NYU’s Kimmel Center on Washington Square South Was Almost a Stately Apartment Building and Was Once Home to “Bohemians” — aka Noted Writers like Stephen Crane, Eugene O’Neill, O. Henry

by cathryn on January 30, 2013

Emery Roth’s once proposed tower for Wash Sq South

Updated — When Brick Underground asked “Any buildings that feel out of place with the feel of the neighborhood?,” I couldn’t help but point to NYU’s Kimmel Center on Washington Square South. However, other than the low rise structure that was there previously which I recall as sort of bland but not necessarily offensive, I was not aware of the history of that site.

First I learned via Curbed that in the 1920′s there was a plan to put a grand apartment building designed by architect Emery Roth in that location on Washington Square South. The building would have taken up the entire block bordered by Thompson Street, LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street. Roth was the architect responsible for buildings such as El Dorado, The Warwick Hotel, and the Beresford, among many others.

Interestingly, 2 Fifth Avenue (1952) on Washington Square North was designed by Emery Roth & Sons, however, the sons seemed to have a very different style than the father.

Anyway, Via Curbed:

We’re revisiting a proposed [Emery] Roth building that never came to be. The grandiose structure would have occupied an entire block beside Washington Square Park, rivaling the stately buildings surrounding Central Park.

El Dorado

Roth worked on the building in the late 1920s, and the book Around Washington Square describes it as “a conjectural building” that had “a striking central tower reminiscent of the ‘Flash Gordon’ towers of Roth’s El Dorado, with four giant apartment wings radiating from it.” The wealthy banker James Speyer supported Roth’s vision, and he purchased the land where it was to go.The building would have sat on the block bound by the park, Laguardia Place, West 3rd Street, and Thompson Street.An excerpt about the building from Around Washington Square:

“Conceived as a premiere residence, the proposed extravagance might have spurred the southern portion of the square’s evolution into an elegant residential district. Instead, the area became the principal target of New York University’s expansion plans in the 1950s. (Roth’s two 12-story wings facing the square would have been relatively massive sunblockers but they would have been kinder to the square than the future developments there).”

Plans for Roth’s building fell apart with the Great Depression. Today, this NYU monstrosity sits on the site:

Kimmel!

So, how did Kimmel Center come to be and NYU happen upon this land? (Kimmel Center was built in 2003, the previous building I’m not sure what year that was built – could it have been the building built in the 50s? anyone know? I will find out. Update: Of course, it was the Loeb Student Center and it was built in 1959, and, in this post last year about the history of the building of the Kimmel Center, I wrote that the previous student center “had a college vibe vs. corporate vibe.”)

While researching James Speyer, mentioned above as owning the land and wanting to erect the grand apartment building before the Depression, I came across this information from Researching Greenwich Village History (which is actually also connected with NYU):

Banker James Speyer owned a brick row house at 61 Washington Square South. In 1886 he leased the house to Madame Katherine Reude Blanchard, a Swiss native, who converted the house into a boarding house for writers, artists, and musicians. For many years the house served as a haven for bohemians in the Village, until developer Anthony Campagna bought and leveled the row of houses on the south side of the park to build a high rise apartment. Instead of constructing the complex, he sold the property to New York University and it is now the current site of Kimmel. Famous bohemians that lived at the boarding house include O. Henry (pseudonym for William Sydney Porter) writer of short stories with twisted endings, Eugene O’Neill playwright of the comedy Ah, Wilderness!, Steven Crane author of The Red Badge of Courage, and novelist Frank Norris among many others.

The Kimmel Center is so far from being anything remotely affiliated with the word “bohemian” that reading this history makes me wish there would be landlords today who would do this same thing that wealthy James Speyer did at one point (prior to deciding to sell, of course, but the site does say this went on “for years”) via Madame Katherine Reude Blanchard – let their properties be used for writers, artists and musicians. Think of what could be contributed by doing so!

Now, with rents in NYC so unaffordable for pretty much anyone but the uber-rich, I think this would be the perfect ‘come full circle’ type initiative. I’d say it’s almost a cultural imperative to shoring up the artistic diversity of our city.

Definition, bohemian:

noun:

( usually lowercase ) a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.

adjective:

( usually lowercase  ) pertaining to or characteristic of the unconventional life of a bohemian.
living a wandering or vagabond life, as a Gypsy.

Let’s bring back the bohemians to Greenwich Village!

 

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