Washington Square with the whole area of 9,5 acre started out as a cemetery, principally for yellow fever victims – an estimated 10,000-22,000 bodies lie below. In the early 1800s it was a parade ground and the site of public executions; bodies dangled from a conspicuous Hanging Elm that still stands at the northwest corner of the square. Turned into a public park in 1827, the square became the focus of fashionable residential neighborhood and a center of outdoor activity. Today it’s a maelstrom of playful activity, shared by earnest-looking NYU students, Frisbee players, street musicians, skateboarders, jugglers, stand-up comics, joggers, chess players, and bench warmers, watching the grand opera of it all. Two well-equipped and shady playgrounds attract gaggles of youngsters, and dog lovers congregate at the popular dog runs. A huge outdoor fair held here each spring and fall.
Dominating the square’s north end the triumphal Washington Memorial Arch stands at the foot of glorious 5th Avenue. A wooden version of the Washington Arch designed by Stanford White was built in 1889 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration and was originally placed about half a block north of its present location. The arch was reproduced in Tuckahoe marble in 1892, and the statues- Washington at War on the left, Washington at Peace on the right – were added in 1916 and 1918, respectively. The civilian version of Washington was the work of Alexander Stirling Calder, father of the renowned artist Alexander Calder. Bodybuilder Charles Atlas modeled for Peace.