Research Question: Celeste Brewer

The University Building and its Residents: A Community of Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century Greenwich Village

The University Building served as a crossroads for Greenwich Village intellectuals in the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries. Within its halls, internationally known figures mixed with the up-and-coming, students mixed with professors, and scholars affiliated with the University of the City of New York mixed with those who were unaffiliated. The building, with its conveniently-located and affordable (though not always comfortable) rooms, initially served as the common denominator among its residents. However, friendships and collaborations repeatedly sprung up between them as a result of their proximity. The results included artworks, scientific developments, inventions, and organizations that have far outlasted the University Building’s fifty nine years on the northeast corner of Washington Square.

The building had its own history, too. The story of the University Building is in many ways the first act of the tumultuous saga of the relationship between New York University and Greenwich Village. Its construction, using stones cut cheaply by convicts at Sing Sing prison rather than local stonecutters working at market rate, incited the 1834 Stonecutters’ Riot. Once it was complete, well-to-do neighbors complained about the noisy comings and goings of its residents at all hours of the night. Rumors even spread that it was haunted. Nevertheless, the University Building was beloved by university students and alumni as a symbol of their alma mater. Its symbolism was so important that, when the undergraduate college relocated to the Bronx, the university chancellor seriously considered reconstructing the University Building uptown. This plan proved too expensive, so in the end, the University Building was demolished. It was replaced with a more modern building with commercial space that the university could rent out—a hint at the changing character of the neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century.

The University Building and its residents serve as a case study through which to explore several broader historical themes. What qualified a nineteenth century American as an intellectual? The famous residents of the University Building were uniformly white and male, though they had varying degrees of formal education. Many of them were distinguished not only by significant achievements in one field, but by their skills in a variety of pursuits. Morse, for example, was an accomplished painter and professor of art and design, but is best known for inventing the telegraph. Draper was likewise a prominent chemist, physiologist, and historian. Were these polymath tendencies an important qualification for intellectual status in the nineteenth century, or are they further evidence that the sharp twenty-first century divides between the sciences, arts, and humanities are artificial constructs?

Similarly, how did nineteenth century Americans understand the role and purpose of a university? Whom did it exist for, and what were they expected to gain? The university’s early students were, like its professors, white, male, and middle-class or wealthier. That understanding changed as the nineteenth century progressed. The commitment to non-sectarianism with which the University of the City of New York had been founded meant that men of color trickled into the student body with relatively little organized resistance. However, the admission of women students was met with considerably more skepticism. Women gained access to the university’s full range of course offerings only gradually, and efforts were made to keep female and male students separate. Women might attend classes in the University Building, but they did not live there, nor did they move uptown with the undergraduate college when the University Building was demolished in 1894. To what extent did nineteenth century ideas about the value of higher education for (and intellectual production of) women and men of color affect the integration of those groups into the community of University Building intellectuals?

I plan to base much of my secondary research about the University of the City of New York/New York University on several histories of the university which have been produced throughout the twentieth century. The oldest, New York University 1832-1932 by Theodore F. Jones, was published for the university’s centennial and provides a more thorough description of the founding and early days of the University. More recent works with more extensive coverage of issues related to inclusion and exclusion in the university, as well as the relationship between the university and the Village, include Thomas Frusciano and Marilyn Pettit’s New York University and the City (1997) and Joan Dim and Nancy Cricco’s The Miracle on Washington Square (2000). Major references for the history of Greenwich Village outside of the university will include John Strasbaugh’s comprehensive work The Village (2013), as well as Luther Harris’ slightly more portable Around Washington Square (2003). American National Biography Online will provide a starting point for gathering biographical information about the University’s Building’s most famous tenants.

I have a general idea of the narrative structure of my exhibit. However, its visual structure will depend in large part on the archival materials that are available for reproduction as illustrations in the exhibit. In addition to completing my secondary research, I need to identify and make appointments with archival repositories that are likely to own materials that will both inform my research and illustrate my exhibit. I am already familiar with one of those repositories, the New York University Archives, since I work there. However, I want to expand the scope of my archival research beyond the University Archives. Repositories which own the papers of the more famous University Building residents would be one important piece of information to gather, especially for repositories which I will not be able to visit in person. I’ll need to have time to correspond with those repositories to gather the information (and hopefully, digital objects) that I need for my exhibit. Finally, of course, the primary and secondary materials will need to be assembled into a coherent whole in Omeka. I have no small task ahead of me. It's time to get to work!

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