The Newberry Library was erected across from Washington Square Park, which has been public land since 1842, when a real estate developer donated three acres of land for a park to the City of Chicago. [Washington Square Park is not to be confused with the much larger Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago.] Washington Square Park is Chicago’s oldest neighborhood park.
From the perspective of someone flying overhead or looking at a large map, it is shaped like an Iron Cross with a square at the center and four triangles shaped like flat-topped pyramids radiating out to form a larger square. The fountain in the inner square is surrounded by a ring of flowers. The inner square, which surrounds a fountain, is enclosed by a fence and the larger square is enclosed by a second short fence. It is bounded by Walton Street to the north, Dearborn Street to the east, Delaware Place to the south, and Clark Street to the west.
In 1842, three real estate speculators – James Fitch, Orasmua Bushnell, and Charkes Butler of the American Land Company – donated a three-acre parcel of land to the City of Chicago for use as a public park. They named it Washington Square Park, likely in honor of New York City’s Washington Square Park, which, at nine-and-a-half acres, is more than three times larger than Washington Square Park in Chicago. The terms of the donation called for the City of Chicago to build a fence around the park and add landscaping, but no improvement took place until the 1860s.
By the 1850s, Washington Square Park became a site for political demonstrations. On April 21, 1855, it was the staging ground for German and Irish immigrants who participated in the Lager Beer Riot – the city’s first civil disturbance. On March 6, 1855, “Law and Order” coalition of teetotalers and ant-Catholic nativists (the so-called Know Nothing Party) swept the city election. They hiked the liquor license fee from $50 to $300 and shortened its duration from one year to three months. Mayor Levi Boone tripled the size of the police department while he simultaneously refused to hire foreigners, and required Chicago policemen to wear their uniforms for the first time. He ordered strict enforcement of an 1845 law that prohibited any “tippling house” from being open on Sundays in the case of German beer gardens, while saloons frequented by native-born Americans were left untouched. One person was killed and sixty were arrested in the riot, which was quelled with policemen and local militiamen. In March of 1856, the immigrants turned out to vote and a new city council restored the former $50 license fee. Germans joined the abolitionist Republican Party in large numbers.
Despite the lack of improvement of Washington Square Park for its first twenty or so years, it did add value to the neighborhood, and it was soon surrounded by churches and palatial homes, one of which was an Italianate mansion built for Mahlon D. Ogden, the brother of William B. Ogden (1805-1877), Chicago’s first mayor (1837-38). It stood north of Washington Square Park. William B. Ogden came to Chicago to supervise the landholdings of the American Land Corporation and was also a railroad executive. Mahlon and William Ogden and their brother-in-law Ezra B. McCagg were three of the twelve co-founders of the Chicago Historical Society. The Newberry Library was later built on the site of Mahlon D. Ogden’s home.
In 1869, the City of Chicago had trees planted, built the diagonal sidewalks, built limestone coping at the perimeter, and erected picket fences at the perimeter. After the Great Fire of 1871, the fence was not rebuilt, but within a few years benches were installed on alternating sides of the sidewalks every eighteen feet.
In the 1890s, a fountain was added to the center of the park, but it disappeared within ten years. The park became very popular in this period. A drawing of Washington Square Park appeared in Rand McNally’s book Bird’s-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago, published in 1893, not coincidentally the same year Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), was held. John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949), who would go onto win a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for one of his cartoons and be founding president of the Brookfield Zoo, sketched Washington Square Park for an article written by his lifelong friend George Ade (1866-1944), for the latter’s newspaper column “Stories of the Streets and of the Town,” published in the Chicago Record.
In the 19th Century, the park had been very simple, a grassy field with some trees, but the famous local landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951) developed a new design with a central fountain in 1906, the same year he became General Superintendent of the West Park Commission. Jensen was also a member of the City of Chicago’s Special Park Commission. That same year, 21st Ward Alderman McCormick became President of the Drainage Board and chose to donate his aldermanic salary to pay for improvement of the park. This included $600 for the new fountain. The City of Chicago allocated an additional $10,000 to improve the park by adding sidewalks and landscaping.
By 1907, the limestone coping and diagonal sidewalks remained, but the old benches had been replaced with a continuous line of cast iron benches with wooden slats for seats and backs on one side of each sidewalk. A sixty-square-foot plaza of planting beds, surrounded by a sidewalk, stood at the center of the park where the diagonal sidewalks had formerly crossed. At the center of the plaza was a fountain that consisted of a circular bowl on an eight-foot-tall column in a thirty-foot-diameter basin. Water from the bowl landed in the basin. The trees included American Elms, Chinese Elms, and Moline Elms; Poplars; Honey Locusts; and Maples. Shrubs defined both the boundaries of the park and the central plaza. A comfort station built south of the central plaza around 1915.
For much of its history, the Washington Square Park served as a forum for soapbox orators, who ranged from writers to political radicals to hobos, in the tradition of Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, as seen in Omen III (1981), and as a result acquired the sobriquet Bughouse Square. This was the case by the second decade of the 20th Century. In this period, the neighborhood began to change and a number of the mansions in the area became flophouses. A group of regular orators at Bughouse Square formed the Dill Pickle Club. For years, Bughouse Square orators acclaimed an honorary king. Tour buses formerly passed Washington Square so tour guides could regale tourists with stories about the place.
In 1959, the Chicago Park District received Washington Square Park as part of a deal whereby the City of Chicago transferred its parks to the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Park District transferred its police force to the City of Chicago. The comfort station was removed in 1975. The next year, the Chicago Park District radically altered the central plaza of Washington Square Park when it removed the fountain and planting beds. It replaced the old floral plaza with a concrete plaza with a cylindrical speaking platform on the east side. Chess tables, concrete walls, and benches were added to the area and shrubs that died off were not replaced.
The Washington Square District (1990) and Extension (2002) Chicago Landmark, includes Washington Square Park and the Newberry Library, as well as the Unity Church (later a Scottish Rite Free Mason lodge called the Scottish Rite Cathedral and now Harvest Bible Chapel’s Chicago Cathedral) at 929 North Dearborn, and mansions – the largest collection of post-Great Fire residences in the city – at 22-28 and 27-31 West Chestnut Street and 802-818, 827-867, 1012, 1023-1029, and 1150-1154 North Dearborn Street. In 1991, when the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency submitted an application to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service to add Washington Square Park to the National Register of Historic Places, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency stated there was a plan to restore the central plaza’s fountain and planning beds within three years.
On July 27, 1996, the Chicago Park District and The Newberry Library re-dedicated Bughouse Square. Washington Square Park is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Figure 1 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the northeastern entrance to Washington Square Park, along Dearborn Street, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 2 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is another view of the northeastern entrance to Washington Square Park, along Dearborn Street, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 3 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is a lamp post in Washington Square Park, with part of The Newberry Library visible, on June 5, 2010.
Figure 4 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park, with part of The Newberry Library visible in the background, as seen from the southeastern corner on June 5, 2010.
Figure 5 S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is a view of the outer fence from within Washington Square Park, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 6 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is another view of the lamp post in the northeastern corner of Washington Square Park, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 7 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park, with part of The Newberry Library’s entrance pavilion visible in the background, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 8 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 9 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is Washington Square Park as seen on June 5, 2010. There are plenty of spaces in Washington Square Park to sit and read or hold a picnic.
Figure 10 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the northwestern corner of Washington Square Park as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 11 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park, with the fountain at the park’s center visible in the background, as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 12 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park as seen on June 5, 2010.
Figure 13 Credit: S.M. O’Connor Caption: This is another view of the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park as seen on June 5, 2010.