Since 1966 Washington Square has served as the terminus for Fifth Avenue’s southbound vehicular traffic (the street is two-way north of 135th Street) but does not itself have a Fifth Avenue address: the buildings that surround the Park are numbered Washington Square North, East, South and West according to their respective sides. Washington Square North’s numbered addresses commence with No. One at the corner of University Place, making it the only street in communication with Fifth that does not observe the custom of beginning numbers in both directions from Fifth Avenue.
The square itself was laid out as parade grounds in 1826, a conversion from its original 1795 use as a potter’s field; the new park gained social status very rapidly, with an 1828 guidebook to New York referring to it as a fashionable location. The houses that originally surrounded the square were in the Greek Revival style, and some of the most handsome of these survive on Washington Square North, particularly the row to the east of Fifth, which served as the setting for both Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and Henry James’ Washington Square. The original Gothic Revival building for New York University, one of Alexander Jackson Davis’ masterpieces, no longer stands, but the square maintains a sense of architectural cohesion.
An ongoing restoration of the park has seen its plantings, pavings, furniture and central fountain upgraded or restored; the Washington Square Arch of 1889, designed by Stanford White and replacing a similar temporary model made of plaster, has also been recently restored. The view from under the arch up Fifth Avenue is one of New York’s great vistas.
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