Location: 1-13 Washington Square North
Meet your new New York City architectural paradigm: Greek Revival.
You’d think borrowing from the Greeks would be the most natural thing in the world for an architect to do. After all: columns! But for centuries, the West was denied first-hand encounters with the real thing, the temples and the stadia, by the instability that came with Ottoman rule. Thus the Renaissance borrowed less from the Greeks than the Romans, themselves borrowers, and held them in higher esteem.
This changes starting in the mid-18th century. The work of early archeologists reintroduced the likes of the Parthenon to the rest of the world; much later, the cause of Greek independence from the Turks made the old civilization not just noble but chic. And for Americans, making a sympathetic connection was especially irresistible. The Greeks were the first democracy, and we Americans were to be their heirs, the purest expression of their promise. And to show how goddamned special we were, we copied our forbears without shame. Towns across the country received Greek names. New York State alone has Ithaca, Syracuse, Corinth, Helena, Marathon, Sparta, Homer. (Even Byron, the sympathetic revolutionary.) Sculptors put Old Hickory in a toga and the father of our country in rather less. And—oh yes—the buildings!
New York is late to the party. Architects elsewhere begin working in the style at the turn of the century, with the really galvanic moment being the scaled-down Parthenon of William Strickland’s Second Bank of the United States building of 1824. Details appear here and there in New York buildings throughout the 1820s, but the style finally blooms in 1830s: suddenly big new buildings in New York are wrought as pagan temples — federal and municipal buildings, private mansions, even churches, which seems counter-intuitive when you think on it some.
The style could also be powerful on the more diminutive scale of the townhouse, especially in row form, especially on this row northside of Washington Square Park. It was colloquially called “The Row,” sort of in the same half-joking, half-deferential way that The Band used to be called “The Band”: there are many like it, and yet none like this. In its day it was home to the kinds of rich folk who were putting porticoes in front of their banks and offices to match the ones at their houses; and later, home to the artists who took the city and the neighborhood as their subjects—Edward Hopper, for one, lived and died at #3. Today New York University owns most of ‘em.