On Washington Mews, a Renovation in Progress

People out walking past Washington Mews, the quaint little thoroughfare north of Washington Square Park, may be wondering what in the world is going on. A home for stables in the nineteenth century and then a studio row for artists beginning in 1916, the Mews certainly accounts for one of the most picturesque street scenes in Greenwich Village. Well, not exactly right now.

NYU is currently converting four buildings along the street as well as upgrading the infrastructure underground, the nearby sidewalks, and the street lighting. Visitors to the city, likely to read about the mews in their tourist guide books, may be disconcerted to find the urban hideaway in such an unappealing state. Residents, too, may look upon the current construction site with raised eyebrows, especially in light of controversies surrounding the university's quest for expansion. In this particular case, however, community and landmark authorities have granted their seal of approval. The renovation just adds one more chapter to a long colorful story.

The origins of the Mews go back to 1801 when Captain Robert Richard Randall died and left his sixteen-acre Manhattan property, Minto Farm, as an estate to be operated for the benefit of retired sailors. The captain's will was complicated, with a clause that made improvements to the existing property rather difficult. Legal entanglements led to the construction of the sailor home, Sailors' Snug Harbor, on the north shore of Staten Island. The trustees of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor eventually were empowered through additional legal measures to make alterations to the Washington Mews and surrounding properties.

In 1916 the Sailors' Snug Harbor Corporation erected new artist studios in Washington Mews and in its neighbor to the west, Macdougal Alley, replacing the old horse stables. The studios gained much attention and were singled out in the city guide books of the period. The studio conversion symbolized the emergence of Greenwich Village as the New World's Left Bank. In 1913 painter Edward Hopper had moved into his studio apartment on Washington Square North, the tallest building on the row between the park and the mews. Overcoming an attempt by NYU to evict him and his wife beginning in 1947, Hopper remained in his home on Washington Square until he died in 1967.

Rider's New York city and vicinity guide from 1916 noted:

"Just above Washington Square to the E. of 5th ave. is Washington Mews, an alley once occupied by the stables belonging to the houses fronting on Washington sq and 8th st.; and to the W. of the avenue, but entered from Macdougal st is Macdougal alley.
  In both streets the stables have been turned into studios. This section of the city, popular with artists, is sometimes compared to the Latin Quarter of Paris. Much of this property is leasehold from the Sailors' Snug Harbor corporation which is now (1916) remodeling the block N. of Washington Mews into artists' dwellings on a comprehensive plan."

The Edison Monthly in 1916 ran a feature on "The New Mews," citing the new studio construction as "an exceptional combination of modernity and Old World picturesqueness." As a sponsored publication, The Edison Monthly proudly boasted that modern electricity in the mews would be served by the New York Edison Company.

The article also featured a photograph of the Washington Mews studio of modernist sculptor Paul Manship (1885-1966). Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will know his Group of Bears (1932, cast 1963).

New York University leased Washington Mews from Sailors' Snug Harbor in 1949-1950 and converted the property into faculty housing and offices. The current renovation includes ADA accessibility and further adaptation from residential to academic purposes.

Related posts:

A Walk to a Mews and Alley, Unplowed (January 2011). The post featured the two small streets under a heavy snowfall.
One Hundred Years Ago in Bohemia (April 2012).


• "NYU Begins Renovation of Historic Washington Mews Buildings." DNAinfo.com October 28, 2011.
NYU's website page on the project.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.
On the map, Washington Mews is on the right (east side of 5th Avenue).

View MacDougal Alley and Washington Mews in a larger map

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