Union Square

Union Square circa 1893
Union Square in 1893


New York's famed thoroughfare Broadway is responsible for some of the city's most famous parks. The irregularity of Broadway's span created space for Union Square, Madison Square, Herald Square, Times Square, and Columbus Circle. Broadway existed before the layout of Manhattan's street grid in 1811. It was adapted from a Native American trail. Therefore Broadway does not run parallel to the north-south avenues of the grid. Broadway runs diagonally, intersecting other avenues and slicing uniform rectangles into small awkward blocks. Union Square was formed by combining three awkward blocks between 14th and 17th Street. Union Square resulted from the intersection or "union" of Broadway and this collection of streets. True to its name, Union Square has always been a crossroads for New Yorkers to meet and assemble.Union Square's monuments and evolving design reveal its primacy in the history of New York City.
A massive fountain centered Union Square in the mid 1800s. During Theodore Roosevelt's childhood at No. 28 East 20th Street, he and his siblings frequented their grandfather's mansion on Union Square, and would have been very familiar with the fountain. The fountain starting gushing water in 1842 to celebrate the opening of the Croton Aqueduct. In 1842, the fountain and the residents of New York City began to receive clean drinking water from Croton River north in Westchester County. Previously, citizens obtained water from a downtown pond called "Collect Pond," and wells, springs, and cisterns. As the population grew, the water supply became polluted and insufficient; the new Croton Aqueduct provided the city with a safe and reliable water supply. The original fountain no longer exists, but two smaller fountains currently reside in the park.
The Roosevelt children would have also passed by the bronze statues of George Washington (1856) and Abraham Lincoln (1870). The George Washington statue depicts the general with an outstretched hand as he signals to his troops on Evacuation Day when the Americans reclaimed the city from the British during the Revolutionary War. The statue of Abraham Lincoln commemorates his presidency during the Civil War and his assassination in 1865, five years prior to the statue's construction. In their grandfather's Union Square mansion, from a second-floor window, TR and his brother Elliott watched Lincoln's funeral procession in 1865.
Shortly before the Roosevelt family moved uptown in 1872, the park they knew so well received a facelift. Union Square was partly renovated under M. A. Kellogg and E. A. Pollard in 1871. Curved paths replaced the straight walkways. The iron fence enclosing the park was removed, resulting in a more picturesque, open, and inviting space. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux finished Union Square in 1872. Unlike their design for Central Park, Union Square was not given a natural, "romantic" landscape. Union Square remained formally designed or "stylized." It now included a "muster ground" to recognize and foster the park's use as a public forum.
Union Square had already developed a reputation as a place to gather and protest. Since the Civil War, organized crowds often blocked the streets at the southeast corner where the statue of George Washington originally stood. On April 20, 1861, seven days after the Civil War broke out, a crowd of 100,000 gathered at the square in support of the Union. In the statue's arms was the American flag that was lowered at Fort Sumter when Union troops surrendered. The flag was brought into the city-to Union Square. This event in 1861 marked the rise of Union Square as a gathering place for rallies, protests, celebrations, and other social activities for the next 150 years.
Union Square continues to offer an unparalleled opportunity for New Yorkers and visitors to gather, relax, celebrate, and experience life at the pulse of this exciting city. Without a doubt, Union Square will continue to evolve to suit the changing needs of New York City.

Union Square Civil War Rally
In April of 1861, seven days after the Civil War broke out, a crowd of over 100,000 gathered at Union Square.


Last updated: February 26, 2015

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