Volume 75, Number 34 | January 11 - 17, 200

Square’s fountain to be moved; water jets will move musicians

Luther Harris, author of a definitive book on the history of Washington Square, displayed a large photo of Frederick Law Olmstead, the “father of American landscape design,” as he read his statement at the Art Commission. Harris said he was trying to emphasize that “Washington Square’s landscape is Olmstedian and that Parks is destroying it with its alien axial symmetry.”

Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki

By Lincoln Anderson

Folk singers strummed and warbled ballads against it. Local politicians - not one but four - testified against it. The Fine Arts Federation of New York stated it was opposed to the idea. Disabled advocates in wheelchairs angrily said they were being used as “pawns” - and not to do it in their name. And most of the people offering testimony during four hours of hearings on Monday said they didn't want the Washington Square Park fountain moved 22 feet to the east. But that didn't matter to the Art Commission, which voted to approve the shifting of the fountain, as well as the park's two statues, as part of the Parks Department's $16 million renovation project.

In doing do, they sealed the park's fate, meaning it will change from its historic Olmstedian design of curved pathways to a more formalistic, symmetrical Beaux Arts layout. And coming with the change to a more regimented look will probably be a parallel change in the use of the traditionally freewheeling park - though the Parks Department is avoiding saying that. Nine high-powered water jets in the fountain will make it hard to perform there.

After hearing the copious testimony, the commission took one hour to deliberate and vote on the three issues.

By votes of 10 yes and 1 no they approved moving the Giuseppe Garibaldi and Alexander Lyman Holley statues to the northern areas of the ovals they currently occupy on the park's central east-west pathway. Their vote on the fountain was unanimous. In his presentation of the plan, John Krawchuk, Parks director of historic preservation, said relocating the fountain would be a stunning improvement. Lining up fountain and arch would “enrich the view of the arch and invite people into the park,” he said. “It is a great civic gesture. Keeping the fountain hidden behind the arch is an intellectual nuance that will be seen as a missed opportunity by future generations.”

Just as at the numerous public meetings held before on the renovation, the overwhelming public sentiment at the Art Commission hearing was once again against the plan. State Senator Tom Duane testified against moving the fountain. Duane also said he supports keeping the fountain and sunken central plaza at their current elevation, though the latter was not within the purview of the Art Commission to decide, having been previously approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Calling the fountain relocation “unnecessary,” Duane said, “While I understand the desire for symmetry between the fountain and the arch, Greenwich Village thrives precisely because its geography is not beholden to grids and symmetry. A park serving and representing our eccentric and eclectic neighborhood does not need perfect alignment.”

His remarks drew cheers and applause from the partisan crowd. Councilmember Alan Gerson deferred to the Art Commission on whether to move the fountain, noting this was part of the agreement he and Councilmember Christine Quinn crafted with the Parks Department in which Parks made commitments on other aspects of the renovation. Yet, Gerson added, “My personal view is that the fountain should stay where it's been my whole life. There's something discomfiting to me about having children in bathing suits playing in the fountain in the line of sight of one of our major arteries.”

Again, there were cheers. New Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Assemblymember Deborah Glick also issued statements against moving the fountain. However, Kate Seely-Kirk, legislative aide to Quinn, the new Council speaker, read Quinn's statement, which, like Gerson, deferred to the Art Commission's judgment on moving the fountain. Except, Quinn didn't offer her personal view on the issue. “Boo!” hooted one woman in the audience. “Chris wimped!” Melissa Baldock, director of preservation from the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, read the society's statement in support of moving the fountain and statues.

“We see no reason to reject the location of these elements,” she said. A member of the opposition pointedly filmed Baldock with a handheld minicamera as she departed after testifying. Keen Berger, Greenwich Village Democratic district leader, noted her late husband Martin Berger 40 years ago defended the right of a mandolin player to perform in the park. Her voice rising to a shout, Berger implored, “The park is a living place - don't let them kill it!” However, weighing in in support of the move was Ric Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects, who called it the obvious thing to do. On the other hand, Tomas Rossant of the Fine Arts Federation of New York said the organization “opposes the relocation of the fountain and sees no reason why a progressive design can't be done with the fountain in place. This redesign privileges Beaux Arts axial symmetry over real history,” he said.

While the mayor appoints all 11 members of the Art Commission, a majority of the commissioners, seven, are selected from a list from the Fine Arts Federation of New York. Last year the federation wrote to the Art Commission expressing their objection to moving the fountain. Ronald Podolsky, attorney on a community lawsuit set to be filed once the project is ready to start, protested that he filed a Freedom of Information Law request to see the updated park redesign plan, but was only notified it was available for viewing the Friday before the hearing. “It is well known that straight lines are the lines of duty, curved lines are the lines of beauty,” Podolsky noted, knocking the redesign. However, broadening the debate, a speaker in support of the project, asked, “Straight lines don't make art? How about the Taj Mahal?” sparking some laughter. Sharon Woolums, a leader of the Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park, on whose behalf Podolsky is filing the lawsuit, said the existing design from the community-driven renovation of the park led by Robert Nichols in 1969 shouldn't be changed. “Bob Nichols was also a theater director and understood how the fountain plaza would function as a theater,” Woolums said. “There is no need to change this brilliant plan. Do not destroy what works.”

Accompanying himself on guitar, Eric Levine, musical director of the Disabled in Action Singers, chose to sing his testimony: Adrian Benepe, our Park commissioner, Says stop the music and that they will do Let not a note by heard from neither man nor bird Ban the guitarists, they're Benepe's taboo We say no to Benepe's men Fight the good old fight again We are the surging mass We are worth more than grass The park's for all people - not just for N.Y.U. During a break in the testimony, Podolsky fittingly led some of the plan opponents in a round of Appalachian coal miners' songs about John L. Lewis. As testimony resumed, noting she's always been a Frisbee player, former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer said it's not a bad thing that there's lots of asphalt in the park. “To play Frisbee you need a lot of payment.

No one's mentioned that.” The actual use of the fountain once the park is renovated was a concern of the commissioners, most notably Byron Kim. Specifically, Kim and a few others voiced trepidations about the plan for a powerful 45-foot-high water plume and eight arcing side water jets in the fountain, wondering how this would mesh with the fountain's current use as a performance space for acrobats and musicians, or even merely as a place to sit and relax. Just the sound of this water display might discourage musicians from jamming nearby, Kim and some of his colleagues opined. They asked the Parks officials if any noise studies of the fountain had been done yet, to which Parks responded that they had not. “The splash factor,” Kim said. “Will it make it difficult for people to sit on the fountain? If you have a lot of water jets will people be able to hear each other talk?”

Art Commission member Otis Pratt Pearsall said the noisy fountain was “a huge issue that needs to be addressed.” Krawchuk said that musicians can ask a park attendant to adjust the fountain, controls for which will be located near the park house. “It'll all be digitized and electronic,” he assured. “I think that this will not be an issue for park users. Certainly, if we feel that noise is an issue, we can adjust the jets accordingly.”

He said the fountain would operate from April to November. Bill Castro, Manhattan borough Parks commissioner, said, in fact, most impromptu performances happen throughout the park, not in the fountain. Castro said time could be carved out for performances in the fountain when the water will be turned off. But larger performances will need to get permits, he said. The commission nixed the Parks plan to add a set of eight shiny pink granite urns atop the fountain's piers mirroring historic urns that were on the fountain before it was moved from 59th St. and Fifth Ave. to its present location around 1870.

The urns could be seen as a deterrent to the use of the fountain as an active performance space and could become large ornate ashtrays, commissioners said. The commission instead approved for the piers to be topped with new bluestone caps. There were issues with turning the Garibaldi statue to face southward. Parks said this would allow for better sunlight on the monument. However, a representative of the Garibaldi Museum said for the statute to face west showed how Garibaldi - Italy's equivalent of George Washington - was a man of both the Old and New World. But Amy Freitag, Parks director of capital planning, said by turning him south he would be looking at the historic Italian South Village. Where both statues are now is an impediment to people walking on the pathway, plus the Holley monument gets doused with dog urine since it's near the dog run, so it's best to move them, Parks said. These opened-up oval areas will also be improved as performance spaces, Parks officials said.

The use of the fountain for cooling off in hot weather and for a children's play area will also apparently come to an end with the renovation. The fountain was converted to a water-play feature for neighborhood children in 1934 with water jets spurting out of the eight fountain piers. The central fountain plume was installed in 1970. However, to meet the new code put in place after a drought a few years ago, in the renovation, the fountain's system will be changed to use recycled water, or water that keeps recirculating through it, as opposed to waste water, or water that goes down the drain into the sewer. Any fountain that uses more than 2,000 gallons of water a day must conform to the new code. The Washington Square fountain will use more than 2,000 gallons of water an hour, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said.

As for use of the fountain by buskers and children, Freitag said, “Having people in the basin when it's dry is certainly something we'd like to explore. And we'll explore use of a [handicapped-accessible] temporary ramp [into the fountain]…. [But] our policy doesn't allow people to play in our fountains.” The restored fountain will continue to have three steps inside as it currently does. After the lengthy testimony, the commission first discussed and voted on the statues and urns. Signe Nielsen, a landscape architect member of the Art Commission, felt that since the fountain relocation had been the only thing the public had testified about, the commissioners were obligated to discuss it a bit. Alice Aycock, an artist member of the commission, said the fountain had always seemed “in no-man's land” to her: “It's neither here nor there. It's just uhhh.” Another commissioner said it was time for “a rebirth of the park” and a blotting out of any memory of how cars used to run through the park until they were banned in 1963. The plaza and north-south central pathway are roughly in the same spot where roads once ran through the park.

James Stuckey, a commissioner who said he plays 10 musical instruments, said the loss of the sunken plaza won't affect acoustics one bit. During discussion of the fact that a plaque to the Tisch family - who have given $2.5 million for the fountain's renovation - will be affixed to the new fountain, Aycock said perhaps another plaque should be added to acknowledge the famous musicians, like Bob Dylan, who got their start playing around the fountain - “so that it just not ignore that.” After the vote, ECO's Woolums angrily called it “a rubber stamp for the mayor's office. The Fine Arts Federation voted against it,” she noted. However, even the Fine Arts Federation's Roussant had predicted Parks would prevail. “There's too much behind this. Parks is really pushing for it,” he had said. Said Commissioner Benepe afterwards, “We're very pleased with the decision. Also, very happy with the fact that people care very deeply about parks. This was further evidence that New Yorkers care deeply about parks and are passionate about them.” The project should begin this spring or summer, he said. He said Parks will work on the issues of the water plume and jets. During her remarks one woman slammed New York University, accusing, “N.Y.U., which has kept a low profile in all this, is the main gainer, getting a symmetrical, clutter-free space for its graduation ceremonies. What a sorry fate that would be for this most individualistic spirited of parks.”

Yet, some of the project's opponents noted a significant absence at the hearing - no representative from New York University seemed to be present. N.Y.U. spokespersons did not return a call for comment by press time as to why the university did not present testimony or even appear to have an official at the hearing.

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