After almost one and a half years of hell, the central section of Washington Square Park has just reopened, fully restored and looking better than ever. Though there is still work to be done on the eastern third of the park, as well as on the southwestern corner, the main work has been completed; not in time, it is true, for this year’s graduation ceremonies at New York University, but at least in time for the summer season. That of course is when the locals, the tourists, the buskers and the dealers come out of the woodwork and make themselves quite at home in this most precious of urban parks.
The hardhat construction, carried out according to designs by George Vellonakis, was controversial from the very beginning. And, as so often in New York civic debates, both sides were wrong. There was no overwhelming reason why, aside from a few retouchings, the park needed to be overhauled at a cost of $16 million, and surely no compelling reason why the great fountain that defines the park had to be moved 23 feet east so as to line up with Fifth Avenue and Stanford White’s Washington Arch.
At the same time, the locals who feared that the park would lose its vibe — that certain something that makes it so special — were overstating their case, if it even had any merit to begin with. The newly unveiled restorations have preserved what was best about the park’s previous incarnation, while removing much that was undesirable.
In one respect, however, regarding the fears of the plan’s opponents that the new design would represent a triumph of gentrification, they were quite correct. Vellonakis has transformed the park from something out of the summer of love into something fully in keeping with today’s more established and classical taste, which also happens to be in accord with demographic changes that the southern part of Manhattan has undergone in recent years. His main contribution has been to make the park centralized and symmetrical. Instead of the annoying tangle of diagonal paths that are still visible at the as yet unreconstructed eastern end of the park, a grandiose avenue cuts directly through the center of the park, along the east-west access. The result is a triumph of order, balance and legibility, a feeling of admirable clarity and openness.
Gone are the clunky 1970s era benches and the fountain made of stone aggregate, and in their place are smoothed granite surfaces. As for the fountain itself, its waterworks have been dramatically reconceived with stunning aquatic curlicues and arabesques. Though some of the opponents of the renovations are still licking their wounds, most of the people in the park on a recent visit seemed quite happy to be there, as though nothing had ever happened.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.