The artistic and scientific fervor that characterized Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th radiated from one particular building on Washington Square Park – NYU’s (The University of the City of New York at the time) Old Main Building at Washington Square East, between Washington Place and Waverly Place. Built in 1835, the Gothic Revival building in the City’s burgeoning 15th Ward housed the New York Historical Society, the New York Academy of Medicine, The American Geographical Society, the Chess Club, and the Women’s Library throughout its existence. The University also used the building as a boarding house, renting out rooms to numerous scientists, artists, and writers who shaped the cultural atmosphere that would typify the Village by the mid-19th century. In 1835, notable artist, inventor, and NYU professor Samuel F. B. Morse claimed four rooms in the Old Main building for studio and laboratory space to teach the literature of the arts and design and to conduct experiments for his electric telegraph.1 In conjunction with another NYU Professor, John W. Draper, Morse also worked with daguerreotypes, a photographic process introduced by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in Paris in 1839. As a tenant at the Old University Building, Morse instructed numerous aspiring daguerreotypists within his studio space, including Mathew Brady, the father of documentary photography. In September 1840 Morse pointed his camera out of a window on the staircase of the Old Main Building’s third floor and captured a shot of the New York Unitarian Church, one of the first successful daguerreotypes produced in America.2 His colleague John Draper also used the Old Main Building as his daguerreotype laboratory, using the roof to snap one of the first photos of a human face – the famous 1840 sunlit portrait of his bonneted sister, Dorothy Draper. NYU’s Old Main Building also housed inventors including Samuel Colt – who preformed work on his revolver while a tenant – painters such as Eastman Johnson, George Harding, Eugene Benson, and Winslow Homer and architects Alexander Jackson Davis (the building’s designer) and Richard Morris Hunt, “the dean of American architecture.” The Old Main Building cultivated a special community of artists and scientists, forming the nexus of Greenwich Village’s cultural leadership.
1. Rick Beard and Leslie Berlowitz, Greenwich Village: Culture and Counter Culture Museum of the City of New York by Rutgers University Press, 1993, p. 283 – 285
2. Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History 1839 – 1889 (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), p. 15