Wall Street Journal Lauds Washington Square “Park House” as “No Ordinary Public Restroom” – Deserved or Over-the-Top?

Photo shortly after completion Washington Square Park bathroom building

washington square park bathroom admin offices building greenwich village
As 2015 ended, The Wall Street Journal took a look at the building that houses Washington Square Park’s administrative offices and bathrooms, giving the structure all kinds of accolades. The article, while fairly comprehensive about the building’s environmental strengths, misses some key facts.

Dubbed “The Park House,” the building opened in 2014, long delayed, part of Phase III in the ongoing redesign of Washington Square Park (the much-needed sidewalk reconstruction is still underway).

The structure replaced, as the article outlines, three separate buildings: the bathrooms, Parks Department offices, and a storage shed (the fountain pumps underground, and remain so). At meetings where the plans for the building were first introduced, the architects referred to it as a pergola. Some at Community Board meetings noted, after viewing the blueprints, that it resembled a suburban train station (and it still pretty much does).

The previous bathrooms had deteriorated over the years which led to the community insisting that the bathrooms be given utmost priority, and be placed first in the redesign plans. But, as the Bloomberg Administration Parks Department so often did, community wishes were ignored: the bathrooms ended up last.

From the article by Corinne Ramey:

The building, called the Washington Square Park House, is no ordinary public restroom, and the man, George Schieferdecker, a partner at BKSK Architects LLP, is its lead designer. The building, which opened in June 2014, houses offices, maintenance equipment, the fountain’s pump and bathrooms, or, in the parlance of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, a comfort station.

It has won two architecture awards this year. One was from a state chapter of the trade group American Institute of Architects and the other, a Palladio Award, for traditional design.

The 3,100-square-foot crescent-shaped building, located on the southern part of the Greenwich Village park between a walking path and a dog run, replaces a former complex of three small brick buildings. In its appearance, it is similar to a pergola, a common garden structure consisting of a trellis supported by columns.

The city chose BKSK through a city contracting program called Design and Construction Excellence, which awards contracts to architecture firms largely based on their previous work and skills of their staff, instead of based on their proposed fees, a parks department spokesman said

For BKSK’s architects, environmental sustainability and making the new building blend into the park were high priorities, Mr. Schieferdecker said.

For example, the bases of the building’s rectangular columns are gray and black granite flecked with white, a material like that used throughout the park. The rest of the columns are made from granite taken from near Lake Champlain, and its color—“it has flashes of green in it, as well as gray and pink,” Mr. Schieferdecker said—complements the colors of the park.

The columns near entrances are narrower, partly as a safety measure so that people can’t hide behind them, but also to create more openness in those areas.

The redwood used for the trellis atop the building comes from old water-tower tanks and pickle barrels from Rochester, N.Y. The building also uses the cellar of the park’s 1960s comfort station, to avoid digging further around the site, a one-time potter’s field where the poor were buried.

The building has solar panels on the roof and a pump that extracts heat from the ground, which, along with other environmental aspects, reduces energy costs by 60%, said Jennifer Preston, BKSK’s sustainable design director. The pump, which attaches to a vertical bore that extends 250 to 300 feet, converts underground temperatures to usable heat and cooling.

The solar panels and heat pump eliminate the need for noisy mechanical equipment on the roof, Ms. Preston added.

The building has thus far survived two full summers in the high-traffic park, which was visited by 54,000 people on one day last May, according to a count by the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

“It’s holding up,” said Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park’s administrator. In the parks department, she added, “that’s the highest compliment.”

Photo shortly after completion Washington Square Park bathroom building
Photo shortly after opening 2014

The building is just under two years old, so it should “hold up” a bit longer, we can only hope (unlike the fountain which seems to be falling apart again).

The Journal piece does not mention the NYPD presence in the building. At 3100 square feet, it was also not built with sufficient storage space — leading to the placement of an unsightly trailer along Washington Square South to make up for it. (Previously in this location sat an unsightly NYPD trailer.)

A commenter, Charleen Larson, noted one other missing piece:

OK, I’ve looked at the architect’s website and at other publications. I’ve now seen a couple dozen photographs of this building. And I still can’t find the bathrooms.

So what we’ve got is a story about a public loo that never shows the loo.

(See photos of the loo below!)

Nor is the cost, for all these high tech environmental aspects, ever mentioned: a tidy $7-8 million.

The article cites 54,000 people coming through the park on a May day. That number is from a count attributed to the Washington Square Park conservancy, which does not run or manage the park. (To learn about the misrepresentations this organization made to the public and why it had to back track on some of its plans, click here.) Sarah Neilson, a Parks Department employee, also works for this private entity. The last visitor count Ms. Neilson provided at a Community Board meeting, presumably from the Parks Department (and you can see how things can start to shift, responsibilities), was 35,000 visitors on a summer day, if I recall correctly. The Washington Sq conservancy says they used volunteers for their efforts after a model built by the Central Park Conservancy. (Of course.)

And then there is this quote from Parks Department staffer and park re-designer George Vellonakis:

“The geometry of the building is reflecting the park itself, and the pavilion is going back to what the parks of the past had,” said George Vellonakis, the parks department landscape architect who worked on the larger redesign of the park. “It mimics this in a very contemporary way.”

Do you agree?

This “going back to the past”-speak (the 1800s) by Mr. Vellonakis was used along the way to sugar coat and push things through.

While the building may now be “award-winning,” the process that preceded it, and its ultimate look, could have used some refining.

Here are some photos of the actual bathrooms (well, the ladies room!):

Washington Square Park bathroom building
Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Is Washington Square Park’s Construction Truly Over? Bathrooms are Open and It Appears So! April 17, 2014

Phase III: Washington Square Park New Bathroom/Park Administrative Building April 21, 2010

Top Photo of George Schieferdecker of BKSK Architects; Sarah Neilson, Washington Square Park administrator: Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal
All other Photos: Cathryn