The Lost Grave Digger’s House on Washington Square South in NYC’s Greenwich Village

58WashingtonSquare_PGavan_Untapped CitiesGrace Godwin looks out the window of her tearoom at 58 Washington Square South. The adjoining buildings at 244 and 246 Thompson Street were reportedly once occupied by a roadhouse where travelers could bide their time while waiting for the stagecoaches to change horses. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals, via Library of Congress

In 1918, New York City photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals took a series of photos of Grace Godwin’s Garret at 58 Washington Square South in Greenwich Village. The tearoom and the site it occupied has an interesting history going back to the 17th century, when the land in this area was home to freed African-born slaves who received Dutch land grants and established farms near the area of today’s Washington Square Park.

Under British rule, the land in this part of Greenwich Village was owned by Elbert Herring, who had a large farm just south of what was called Skinner Road (present-day Christopher Street). Following the Revolutionary War, the city purchased land from Herring for use as a potter’s field for poor and indigent people. A gallows for public executions was also erected on the site where Stanford White’s Washington Square Arch now stands.

In 1819, Daniel Megie (possibly McGee), New York City’s grave digger and hangman, purchased a small plot from John Ireland for $300. There, at the southeast corner of present-day Thompson Street, Megie lived in a small circa-1800 frame house at 58 Washington Square South, where he also stored the grim tools of his trade.

Daniel Megie lived in this house until 1821, when the city moved the potter’s field to the area of Bryant Park. After Megie moved out, the property changed hands many times over the years. During the late 1880s, the home was occupied by New York Governor Lucius Robinson.

In the 1910s, No. 58 was home to a popular candy and cigar shop on the ground floor and Guido Bruno’s Garret on the second floor, where local artists exhibited their work. The frame buildings were reportedly heavily damaged in a fire in 1916, in which Bruno lost many historical items of great value, including unpublished manuscripts by Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain.

The buildings were apparently salvaged following the fire in 1916. By 1917, Grace Godwin had taken over the upstairs of No. 58, where she served breakfast, afternoon tea, spaghetti dinners, and after-dinner coffee.

GraceGodwin2_HatchingCatGrace Godwin was known for her spaghetti dinners, which she served upstairs at 58 Washington Square South. Photo via Library of Congress

In August 1927, The New York Times reported that the old brick and timber buildings on the corner of Washington Square South and Thompson Street were set to be demolished and replaced by a 15-story apartment building. These plans fell through, but No. 58 and the adjoining frame buildings were razed.

SpeyerWashingtonSquare_HatchingCatThis photo of the “Red Row” from 1945 (New York Times) shows a small empty lot with a bare tree at right where No. 58 once stood.

58WashingtonSquareS_PGavan_UntappedCitiesAnother post-1945 view of the lot where 58 Washington Square South had stood. Photo via Museum of the City of New York Digital Collections

In the 1930s, banker James Speyer purchased the parcel along Washington Square South between Thompson Street, LaGuardia Place, and West 3rd Street. The plan was to construct a modern apartment complex on the site, which would be designed by architect Emery Roth. Roth’s “winged fantasy apartment house” never took flight, thanks to zoning laws and the Great Depression.

In 1945, James Speyer sold the property for $2 million to Anthony Campagna, who planned to construct apartments on the site after World War II ended. About 50 residents who lived in the buildings pictured above fought against the plan, but the developer secured evictions in January 1948 and reduced the entire block to rubble.

In the end, the high-rise never rose. Campagna sold the property to New York University, which began constructing its $3.5 million Loeb Student Center in 1952 and its Trinity Chapel and Catholic Center in 1961.

NYUWashingtonSquare_PGavan_UntappedCitiesAn artist’s rendering of NYU’s Loeb Student Center appeared in The New York Times in 1957.

LoebWashingtonSquare_PGavan_UntappeedCitiesFor 10 years, between demolition of the Red Row on Washington Square South and completion of the Loeb Student Center, the vacant lots served as a pseudo-recreational area for the neighborhood. The student center was demolished in 2001 to make way for the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life.

58WashingtonSquareTrinity_PGavan_UntappedCitiesThe Holy Trinity Chapel, Generoso Pope Catholic Center at NYU, was constructed at 58 Washington Square South from 1961-64 and razed in 2009. Photo via the Archdiocese of New York website

WashingtonSquareSNYU_PGavan_UntappedCitiesToday, what was once the New York City gravedigger’s home site is the NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. Photo via Google Streets

For more on Washington Square, check out Downtown Dodder: Hidden History of Washington Square Park in NYC. Get in touch with the author @HatchingCatNYC

 Greenwich Village, NYU, Washington Square Park

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