Original Landscape Design of the Square
About 1886, New York City Mayor Abram S. Hewitt promoted a citywide effort to improve public access to green spaces. Central Park architect Calvert Vaux and landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. collaborated on the landscape design for Abingdon Square. "Abingdon Square has been so long crowded with fine trees that a winding walk ending in a little plaza, and bordered by a few shrubs and little bedding was all that could be satisfactorily done," wrote Parsons in 1892, "Shrubs and flowers would not thrive in such deep shade." The Square's most recent renovation in 2003-2004 was very much in keeping with the design of Vaux and Parsons.
The Square’s Design Heritage: A Picturesque English Style Garden
The landscape design of Abingdon Square is based on the picturesque English style garden, which became popular in England in the 1700s. The picturesque landscape is characterized by variation and irregularity. It employs more natural use of trees, shrubs and extensive lawns. In America in the later half of the 19th Century, when the first formal design of Abingdon Square was executed, being modern meant one had an English style garden and a lawn.
The Square’s Landscape Architects: Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons, Jr.
Calvert Vaux was born in London, England in 1824. In 1850, Vaux was introduced to Andrew Jackson Downing, a well-known American architect, designer and writer, who asked Vaux to join him in a design and architectural practice he was forming in the United States. In 1858, the City of New York opened a contest to design a new park. Vaux recruited then little known Frederick Law Olmsted, who was to be the superintendent of the new park, to collaborate with him on the design. Eventually, their plan, entitled "Greensward", was chosen as the winner.
In 1865, Olmsted and Vaux won the commission to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In 1870, they prepared the initial proposal for parks and parkways in Buffalo, the first plan for an interconnected park system to be implemented by an American city. Other joint projects were executed in Albany, Newark, Chicago and Riverside, IL. The latter is regarded as the country's first major suburban residential community. Vaux had a parallel career as an architect. He designed country and suburban houses, and major commercial and civic buildings, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum in New York City.
Samuel Parsons, Jr. was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1844 to Samuel Parsons, Sr., an accomplished and well-noted horticulturist, who was the first to import Japanese Maples and propagate rhododendrons to America. Parsons graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1862. When he returned home to the family nursery in Flushing, Queens, a welcome surprise awaited him. The nursery was now in business with and supplying Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the famous landscape designers most notably responsible for the design of Central Park.
Parsons became an apprentice of Calvert Vaux from 1879 to 1884 and his partner from 1887 to 1895. When Vaux became the head landscape architect of the New York City Parks Department, Parsons took over the unpaid position of Superintendent of Planting. After Vaux's death in 1895, Parsons became the new head landscape architect of New York City and remained there until 1911. In 1899, Parsons founded the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). His designs are still visible throughout the United States, including San Diego’s Balboa Park and New York City's Union Square.
Reconstruction of the Square in 2003-2004
The Square was reconstructed and renovated in 2003-2004 to preserve, restore and reconstruct a setting that emphasizes the Square’s 19th Century heritage and its landscape design legacy as a picturesque English style garden. Graceful sweeping pathways and a central contoured lawn were developed as prominent features of a design intended to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape on a small scale.
The design preserved the 1836 perimeter cast iron fence and the granite curb. The renovation includes other historic 19th Century park features such as the 1850’s-style benches, post and chain fencing and Bluestone walkways edged with Bluestone curbs. Cast iron light poles that replicate New York City’s gas poles further restore the Square's historic integrity. The World War I Memorial Doughboy statue was relocated to the southern end of the Square and has become the beacon to the park. Ornamental plantings were planted throughout the park, making the Square a destination for West Villagers and all New Yorkers. The reconstruction was also designed to contribute to the special architectural and historic character of the Greenwich Village Historic District.
Timeline of the Square
Sir Peter Warren, a vice-admiral in the British Navy, purchases a 300-acre farm known as Greenwich, extending along the Hudson River from what is now Christopher Street north to around West 21st Street and east to around what is now Broadway. His eldest daughter Charlotte marries Willoughby Bertie, the Fourth Earl of Abingdon, and a share of the Warren estate, which includes the land that will come to be known as Abingdon Square, is part of her dowry.
The City Council changes the designation of streets and places with British names in order to reflect American independence. Nonetheless, the name Abingdon Square is preserved, because the Earl of Abingdon and his wife had sympathized with the American patriots and he had argued in Parliament against British policy in the colonies.
The Common Council resolves that the ground called Abingdon Square should be enclosed as a public park and appropriates $3,000 for the expense.
The City acquires the land and encloses it with a cast iron fence.
Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons, Jr. execute the Square’s first formal landscape design.
Ten thousand spectators gather in and around the Square to hear former and future Governor Alfred E. Smith dedicate the Abingdon Doughboy, in memory of local men who fought in World War I.
Lee Zimmerman, Chris Garvin and Robert Cole found Abingdon Square Conservancy.
The Square re-opens after a year-long renovation.
Abingdon Square Conservancy forms its first board of directors and files its application with the IRS to secure status as a non-profit public charity exempt from federal income tax.