7. Skeletal Remains Underneath The Arch

Burial vaults below  Washington Square park
Photo by Chrysalis Architecture

In 1890, when construction on the new arch began, first a part of the land had to be cleared, and the ground had to be broken to build the foundation the arch would stand on. But after just a short 10 days, construction was stopped when workers found skeletal remains underneath the area of the park. That was only 10 feet underground. After going down another two feet, every shovel full of dirt contained skeletal remains.

In the early years of the park following the Revolutionary War, the founders of New York City designated a few plots of land around the city as “potter’s fields,” public burial grounds for the poor who died mostly from yellow fever. Washington Square Park was one of them. However, one resident claimed that the potter’s field was only in the southern section of the park, not the north where the arch is. After an excavation was done, the resident was proven right after the discovery of a headstone from 1803 in the north side determined that area in particular to be an old, formal German cemetery.

Although work resumed, the issue of class distinction did not leave. In fact, the area had been slowly transforming into an area for tenements for the poorer population. When the cornerstone of the arch was laid on May 30, 1890, in front of an audience of 6000, Chairman of the Citizens Committee on Art, Henry Marquand proclaimed “It is true that the neighborhood may be all tenement houses in a few years. But have the occupants of the tenements no sense of beauty? No patriotism? No Right to good architecture?”

What else is buried underneath the city? Check out what NYC’s Former Cemeteries Are Now and 5 Notable Archaeological Sites in Manhattan.