Thursday, November 10, 2011

The First House on the Square -- No. 20 Washington Square North

photo by Beyond My Ken

In 1790 the city of New York purchased seven acres of land from the Herring family well north of the established city. The property was used as an execution ground and potter’s field. Seven years later four more acres were purchased from Colonel William S. Smith and a few more added from Alfred Pell and the Warren estate, creating a 13-acre plot.

About the same time that the city was buying the portion of the Warren estate, so was John Rogers. In 1796 he bought four acres, just north of what would become the potter’s field. Upon his death the land was divided among his three children, George, John Jr., and Mary.

Bachelor George P. Rogers lived in a fine home at 18 Broadway, opposite Bowling Green, which he shared with his brother. The land he inherited to the north, unfortunately, abutted a burying ground where trenches were dug and wooden coffins were piled three or more deep. It was not the most fashionable of sites; although hangings had ceased on July 8, 1819.

The Evening Post reported that “Rose, a black girl who had been sentenced for setting fire to a dwelling…was executed yesterday at 2 o’clock near Potter’s Field.” It would be the last of the hangings.

Then in 1826 Mayor Philip Hone had the idea to renovate the potter’s field, turning it into a military parade ground. It would be named in honor of George Washington. Before long the interred bodies—many of the victims of the 1822 yellow fever epidemic and estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000—had been covered over and forgotten. George Rogers’ property was suddenly more respectable.

Rogers’ began construction of his country house in 1828. It was the first mansion on Washington Square North and was completed the following year. An elegant Federal-style structure it was three-and-a-half stories tall and 37 feet wide. In her It Happened on Washington Square, Emily Kies Folpe imagined the solitary, grand country house. “When it stood alone on the north side of the parade ground, it would have looked like a country mansion set in private grounds, with a carriage-way along its west side leading to a stable in the rear.”

photo by Alice Lum

It would not stand alone for long. Wealthy businessmen, bankers and real estate moguls were establishing tasteful residential neighborhoods in areas such as Bond Street and St. John’s Park. Washington Square would be included among them.  A row of dignified Greek Revival mansions were constructed between 1832 and 1833.

Among those settling along Washington Square North were John Johnston; George Griswold, who owned a China-trade company with his brother; and several members of the Rhinelander family. George Rogers’ sister, Mary, would eventually marry William C. Rhinelander.  He would build 14 Washington Square North, on the corner of Fifth Avenue in 1840 where they would live out their lives.

George Rogers built two additional mansions around the same time at 16 and 17. He lived in 17 Washington Square North until his death in 1870.

In 1859 alterations were made to 20, adding 13 feet to the first floor. By 1880 the Rhinelanders had acquired nearly all of the property along what was then called North Washington Square. That year architect Henry J. Hardenbergh was commissioned to renovate 20 Washington Square North from an extra-wide private mansion into four roomy and high-class apartments.

The scar in the facade between the windows to the left bears evidence to the addition -- photo by Alice Lum

The architect extended the entire building to the width of the first story and added a fourth floor. He deftly matched the original window lentils on the extension, then reflected the arched entrance opening in the fourth floor windows. The original Federal-style cast iron fencing was removed and updated.

Although apartment living was still viewed suspiciously by many, the elegant accommodations at 20 Washington Square attracted the upper ranks of society. In 1887 Mrs. O. P. Hubbard was living here.  She was at the time President of the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church.

The widow of Edward Renshaw Jones lived here with her son, Edward, and daughter, Mabel. On January 31, 1896, Mary E. Jones and Mabel hosted an afternoon reception in the parlor. Only 19 days later young Edward, who had graduated from Harvard three years earlier, died in his bedroom after a short illness.

Attorney Henry S. Hoyt, his wife, Geraldine Livingston Hoyt, and their son Henry Jr. had an apartment here at the same time. Thirty years later Francis Hoyt Griffin and his wife would still be in the apartment.

Perhaps none of the residents were more colorful than Julia Gardiner Gayley. Julia was the daughter of Colonel Curtis Crane Gardiner of Gardiner’s Island and a lineal descendant of Miles Standish. In 1884 she married James Gayley, a close personal friend of Andrew Carnegie who went on to become Vice President of the United States Steel Corporation.

A year after their daughter, Mary, married Count Giulio Senni of Rome, Julia walked out on Gayley.  She took up residence at 20 North Washington Square, taking her remaining two daughters Agnes, and Florence, with her. In February 1910 Gayley finally sued for divorce, citing desertion.

The divorce did not put a damper on Julia’s social activities and she regularly sailed off to Europe with the girls. Then in August 1920, just six months after she announced the engagement of daughter Florence to Henry Eglinton Montgomery, Julia married club man Gano Dunn.

A room in Julia Gardiner Gayley's apartment in No. 20 Washington Square North -- photograph from the personal collection of Vittoria McIlhenny

The couple remained at No. 20 and Julia Gardiner Gayley Dunn continued to entertain. Guest lists at her teas and receptions were often peppered with the names of the social celebrities of the day.  In 1923, for instance, the same year that Sir Herbert Morgan was here for tea, Princess Santa Borghese made an appearance in the parlor.

The extra width of No. 20 can be seen from across the Square in 1930 -- photo NYPL Collection

June 23, 1936 marked the end of the mansion’s residential use. New York University leased the building from the Rhinelander Estate to be renovated into the administrative center of the Division of General Education. The facility would provide space for the developing adult education program which was in its infancy.

Six years later the Rhinelander estate finally sold the property it had held for more than a century. It was purchased by the St. Joseph’s Academy, a venerable educational institution that had been operating from 154 Waverly Place. The house was assessed at the time at about $120,000.

The conversion of the mansion into a school took just over one year. Operated by the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent, the new facility was dedicated by Archbishop Francis J. Spellman on September 25, 1943. The renovated building had nine classrooms, music room, library, chapel and gymnasium. 120 students in grades kindergarten through eighth were enrolled that first year.

photo by Alice Lum

Today the house is home to the Intercommunity Center for Justice and Peace, an organization of 16 religious communities formed in 1991 to address issues of peace and justice.

George P. Rogers’ summer house has been drastically changed in its nearly 200 years existence, yet it remains handsome and dignified. As The New York Times noted in April of 1922, “the palatial house…with its red brick front and white trim, stands out conspicuously overlooking the Square.”


  1. I graduated from this elementary school in 1949 . Fond memories. Henry Springer . Find me on Face Book, Henry Springer, Port Orange,Florida

    1. Have wonderful memories from 1st to 4th grade. Moved from NYC to Arlington VA in 1956, my last year at the school. Dad took me back when I was 13 to visit Sister Beatrice, my first grade teacher. Also remember fondly Sister Kathleen, 2nd grade teacher. Sue Dann Dowell on Facebook

    2. I did K thru 3rd grade at SJA from 1959 to 1964. Sister Beatrice was my 1st grade teacher as well. She'd been there so long that she had taught the parents of some of my classmates! My parents were grateful to her for being the first to diagnose my vision problem which lead in short order to corrective eye surgery. I did my growing up in NYC but now live in Arlington VA. Best Regards, Tim Grier

  2. I attended SJA from 1944 to 1951 when we then moved to Maine. I returned in the Fall of 1961 to teach Kindergarten. Sr. Beatrice (1st grade teacher) was still there. She took care of my Kindergarten class at lunchtime!! 1st year I was Miss Clancy, 2nd year I was Mrs. Rudman. Fond memories of attending and teaching at the Academy. Missy (Martha) Clancy Rudman

    1. You were my Kindergarten teacher and you were lovely. At first you were Miss Clancy and the got married that year and became Mrs. Rudman. My brother, Tom was a year ahead of me, in Sr. Beatrice’s class. Thank you, Kathy Doyle

  3. Gano Dunn was a lot more than a "Club Man." He was a famous engineer and was President of Cooper Union and CEO of the United States National Research Council. A pioneering electrical engineer, he made important advances in radio. He received the first degree in Electrical engineering granted by Columbia University, and much later was also president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. At the beginning of his academic studies he was offered a job by Thomas Edison (who awarded him the Edison medal) but instead chose to study at Columbia where he was an assistant to Nikola Tesla. A little more than a "club man" I think!

    1. The additional information is appreciated. The sarcasm less so

  4. I attended from second grad through eighth grade and know what a valuable education I received. I remember all my dedicated teachers. I wound up teaching in a Catholic school in Westchester Co.
    Barbara Schorle Eberz

  5. For those of you on Facebook, there is a group for former students of SJA. You can find it by searching "St. Joseph's Academy - Washington Sq. Park, NY". We have 124 members from all graduating years, from 1950 to when the school closed in 1974.

  6. The Sisters of Charity still reside there. They are vital to the community! Such fond memories there!

  7. 154 waverly became a convent for the nuns that taught at the other St.Josephs on Christopher st and the nuns who taught at the Cathedral H.S. annex on Washington Pl.