Monday, March 23, 2020

The Lost University Building - Washington Square East and Waverly Place

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In February 1830 a group of esteemed New Yorkers including Morgan Lewis, John Delafield and Myndert Van Schaick, proposed the organization of a university, "the great object" of which, according to the New York Spectator, "shall be to extend the benefits of education in greater abundance and variety, and at a cheaper rate, than at present they are enjoyed."  The Sun later remarked that it was intended "to far overshadow Harvard, Yale, and Princeton."  The University of the City of New York was founded that fall and incorporated by an act of the state legislature in April 1831.

Classes were temporarily held in Clinton Hall at Beekman and Nassau Streets.  The building committee appointed to plan for a permanent home for the school selected the eminent architectural firm of Town and Davis to design the structure.  The Sun said it was meant to be "the most splendid building in New York."

George Rogers had began construction of the first mansion on Washington Square in 1828 and within the next few years other elegant homes were rising along its borders.  The University of the City of New York acquired the southeast corner of Washington Square East and Waverly Place as the site for its home.  According to Julia M. Truettner in her 2003 Aspirations for Excellence Alexander Jackson Davis submitted the first design in the classic revival style.  "This design, however, was rejected by the university in favor of one of the newly emerging Gothic Revival style."

Construction began in the summer of 1833.  Marble quarried at Sing Sing, New York created a gleaming white presence amid the red brick mansions.  Completed in 1836 it featured a castellated roof line, turrets and corner towers.  A three-story Gothic window flooded the chapel, which doubled as the lecture room, with natural light.

A column of a portico of one of the Washington Square North mansions was included in this 1850 print.  To the right are the towers of the 1840 Reformed Dutch Churchfrom the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The northern portion of the University Building contained housing for students.  They could expect a no-frills existence.  Decades later, in 1887, the New-York Tribune explained "The rooms...were fair for those days.  All of them had thick walls and high ceilings, with broad windows encrusted in heavy stone sills and cornices.  There was no running water, it is true, and steam-heaters and hot-air registers were alike unknown.  The rooms were warmed partly by the sun, partly by open grate fires or stoves.  Coal and gas were extras of course.  So was all but the minimum of service."

The New Yorkers gave the institution the popular name of New York University.  The expansive lecture room of its marble building was used not only for class instruction, but for public lectures.  On January 30, 1836, for example, The Herald reported:

Professor Bush last evening at the New York University, explained the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.  He read distinctly the inscription on the Rosetta stone, and explained every character on the Pyramids.  What prodigious learning!

Dr. Sleigh gave a weekly lecture on Saturday evenings at the time.  On February 24 The Herald reported on his latest talk, saying "The lecture room was crowded to excess with the fashionable world, ladies and gentlemen."  The women in the audience were warned against the physically constricting fashion trend--the corset.  He reminded them that "figure did not constitute beauty" and was sure that by evening's end "he would bring conviction home to the heart of every female of the destructive and pernicious effects of the corset."

drawing by John Disturnell, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Financial Panic of 1837 erased the institution's endowment, and finances worsened following Dr. Morgan Lewis's death in 1844.  He had headed the trustees of the university since its inception.  An article in The New York Times entitled "A Financial Explosion" on February 8, 1849 lamented "Dr. Matthews was one of its most efficient founders; but unfortunately, of late years, it has fallen into quite different hands, and has been diverted from its original broad character, to a narrow and puritanical course.  Its prayers and piety, as far as lip service goes, the New York University is a perfect pattern; but in solid learning, sound sense, and flourishing funds, it has been as bad as it well could be."  The writer bemoaned "Is there no mode of resuscitating such a noble institution as this ought to be, and so useful in promoting the intellect and learning of this great metropolis?"

With enrollment falling off, a decision had been made to convert some of the dormitory rooms into bachelor apartments in 1840.  The New-York Tribune remarked in 1887 "The big, square marble building with its shortened towers, was long ago found too large for all its students, and, to help the college treasury along, nearly half of its living rooms were let out to bachelor tenants.  The Waverly Place wing was shut off as far as possible from the main hall, doors were cut at convenience through the inner walls to make suits, or barred up again to please tenants who took only single rooms."

Bachelors fitted up the apartments to their liking, like this artist's studio.  The Sun, March 6, 1892 (copyright expired)

While the accommodations needed the tenants' dressing up, the Washington Square location was fashionable and convenient.  "Rooms were taken bare of everything except the paper left by the last tenant on the wall, and were furnished to suit the taste or pocket-book of the owner."  It was a favorite among journalists and artists.  In 1892 The Sun recalled "they find in its cloister air and in the fine views from its windows a sympathetic place for their labor."  

In the years following the Civil War men paid from $300 a year for a single room, to $700 for a large suite--or about $1,450 per month for the most expensive in today's dollars.

In another move to augment the struggling university's coffers classrooms were leased to outside groups.  An announcement in The New York Herald on October 20, 1867 touted "A Ladies' Class, for the Study of the various stages of the English Language and Early English Literature is now being formed...This course is under the patronage of several ladies."  

Others who rented space were J. Jay Watson who advertised "Private lessons, piano, organ, violin, guitar, singing, languages, University Building, 36 Waverley place" on April 1, 1877; and his apparent competition, "Miss Watson's Select Music School for ladies and children.  Piano, Organ, Guitar, Singing, Languages."

Mrs. Henrietta A. Matthews and her husband occupied an apartment in the building where she held the position of "janitress"--more like a manager or superintendent in today's terms.  On Wednesday evening, March 27, 1878 three burglars broke into the third floor rooms of F. S. Comstock.  They loaded a bag with $250 worth of clothing and jewelry and were on their way out when they were frightened.  As they fled they left the bag on the staircase landing.

The Sun, March 6, 1892 (copyright expired)

The cause of their alarm was the approach of Mrs. Matthews who had been informed of the break-in.  The feisty, no-nonsense women had no intentions of allowing a burglary on her watch.  As the thief who dropped the bag scrambled to get away, "Mrs. Matthews caught him at the main door, grasped him by the arm and dragged him, notwithstanding his efforts to escape, to her room, where her husband assisted her in holding him until the arrival of Officer Kenny."

Part of the problem was that there was no security in the building as is expected today.  There were no guards to question anyone who wandered in or out, and because a long corridor ran from one end of the building to the other, crooks found it an inviting spot.  On November 24, 1889 The New York Times wrote "'Dead beats' and petty swindlers have discovered that the arrangement of the first floor of the building is specially well adapted for their thieving needs."

One scam was to order merchandise to be delivered to the University Building, then wait for the messenger.  The thief would ask him to wait while he hurried upstairs to get the payment, only to exit out the opposite side of the building.

Around 1877 the soaring chapel space, "which was one of the wonders of New York," according to The Sun, was floored over and divided into additional bachelor apartments.  While the lower two floors were much like the other rooms in the building, the article described:

...the top rooms have the vaulted roof of the chapel for a ceiling.  Turning from the windows one sees an interior like that of some mediaeval palace.  There are queer corners.  The pendants, massive and reaching nearly to the floors, make odd nooks and unexpected partitions.

Huge stars of gold glitter in the elaborate carving of the stone ceiling.  Gargoyles peer and grin.  there are Latin inscriptions half effaced.  In several of the rooms colossal figures, flowing and mysterious, rise from the floor to grow ghastly in evening shadows.

One of the upper apartments in the former chapel.  The Sun, March 6, 1892 (copyright expired)

In 1891 the university considered opening a northern campus.  On May 5 The New York Times reported that a committee meeting "took place last evening at the University Building, in Washington Square.  Plans for enlarging the scope of the university were discussed."  

The resident who had lived in the building the longest at the time was also its most eccentric.  Henry T. Gamage, known as the "University Building hermit," had moved into his room on the top floor around 1842.  During his half-century residency, according to The Evening World, "not more than two persons besides himself had been admitted there."  He cooked his own meals and "waited upon himself in every respect."  The newspaper said "The other tenants had become accustomed to his peculiarities, but the oldest of them had no more than a nodding acquaintance with him."

On February 13 1892 a servant passing by his room smelled a suspicious odor and pushed open the door, which was ajar.  Gamage had died in his chair and his head had fallen onto a small stove.  "He found that the old man's head was burned to the bone on the right side."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
There were more than fifty oil paintings stacked throughout the room.  Five days later The Sun reported that those who had called "the University building hermit [a miser] did the dead man a great injustice."  His will revealed that he had saved up his fortune as well as the accumulated paintings to pay the debts "incurred many years ago by his father."

The University Building--the symbol of the school--was included in the ambitious plan of the uptown campus.  The firm of McKim, Mead & White provided general plans to the university in April 1893 "for removing the historic building on Washington Square and reconstructing it" at University Heights.  The architects placed the cost of the project at $200,000--more than $5.75 million today.

The University Building took center stage in the original uptown plans.  The New York Times, April 29, 1893 (copyright expired)
The problem was that while the university did not want to see the venerable structure razed, it did not intend to pay for the expensive undertaking of moving it.  The New York Times explained that the trustees "feel unwilling to adopt plans which will obliterate the old edifice until they have invited citizens to assist them in preserving this notable structure."

The private donations did not come in.  And without the upgrades it would have received in the rebuilding, University Hall was unusable for the Washington Square campus (which would be officially named New York University in 1896).  It was demolished in 1894 to be replaced by the Main Building, designed by Alfred Zucker (renamed the Silver Center of Arts & Science in 2002).

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

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