May 5, 2011
Back in the 60s and early 70s Lower Manhattan’s 1902-built Hotel Earle, as it was then called, was something of a flophouse; a grand but dilapidated and seedy apartment hotel in seemingly terminal decline.
At the same time, the neighbourhood in which the Earle stood – Greenwich Village – was becoming the beating heart of New York’s alternative counterculture, reflected by its population of writers and free-thinkers who flocked to its jazz clubs and coffee houses, feeding on the daily intellectual scene of poetry readings and folk sessions.
The hotel had already counted Ernest Hemingway and Dylan Thomas among its guests, and musicians and writers made the Hotel Earle their temporary home, including Bob Dylan, Jack Elliott and Peter LaFarge, as well as Joan Baez, who referred to it as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square” in her 1975 song Diamonds and Rust.
In 1973, it was bought by the Paul family, and over the next few decades, the building was gradually and sensitively restored to the stylish art deco-inspired hotel that it is today, with its name changing to Washington Square in 1986. North Square, the hotel’s award winning bistro-style restaurant was opened in 1992.
The Washington Square is one of the few remaining family-run hotels in New York, and its tight-knit community of employees – many of whom have been at the hotel for more than twenty years – is what makes it so special.
Washington Square Hotel has 152 rooms on nine floors, from the smaller superior double and twin rooms to the ample-sized deluxe doubles and executive kings. All have private bathrooms and are decorated in a characterful deco style with black and white prints of famous ’30s and ’40s movie stars on the walls, custom-made furniture and crisp white linen. Cable TV, iPod docks and free high speed wi-fi is available in every room.
At the rear of the cheerfully-tiled lobby, is the hotel’s best kept secret. The Parisian-style Deco Room with its wrought-iron entry gate is the place to head to for a stylish afternoon tea when your legs are tired from browsing the boutiques of the Village and neighbouring Soho, or a late night tÃªte–Ã -tÃªte over a martini or two.
The downstairs bar and lounge is a livelier space where conversation flows easily. The bartenders take time to stop and chat, the snack menu is excellent and the prices are reasonable. If you’re here on a Sunday, hang around for the Jazz Brunch. It’s where Norah Jones got her first big break, after slipping a demo tape to the owners when she worked here as a waitress.
Most first time visitors to New York will no doubt want to take in all the famous sights, and the hotel is perfectly placed to do that. The West 4th St/Washington Square subway stop is 30 seconds away on 6th Ave (for lines A, C, E, B, D, F, M) and the Christopher St/Sheridan Sq stop is one block further on, at 7th Ave (for lines 1, 2, 3).
Don’t be too keen to rush off though. The immediate vicinity is still just as interesting as it ever was. Greenwich Village up to and especially during the ’50s and ’60s was predominantly a magnet for artists, activists, radicals and bohemians, and although the area has been significantly gentrified – with business people, upper middle class families and celebrities now calling it home – it retains a magical atmosphere and still plays host to a pulsing streetlife scene.
Other than gazing from the rooftops of skyscrapers or sailing around New York harbour, pretty much everything you could ever want to do in New York, you can do right here. Unless stated otherwise, everywhere listed below is within a 5 – 10 minute walk from the hotel.
New York’s two world-famous jazz clubs are practically on your doorstep.
The Village Vanguard (178 7th Avenue South) opened its doors in 1935, and more than 100 albums have been recorded here, including landmark live shows by John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Dexter Gordon.
The much newer (it opened in 1981) but equally legendary Blue Note (131 West 3rd St) has also showcased a lineup of greats including Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone.
And not to be missed, according to the Washington Square Hotel’s general manager Sonny Christopher, is the Fat Cat club (75 Christopher St, at 7th Ave) where you can get your groove on to a nightly jazz act while playing pool, ping-pong or shuffleboard, or even a sedate game of chess, scrabble or backgammon. It’s even been voted the city’s best pool hall by New York Magazine.
Babbo (110 Waverly Place), the flagship Italian restaurant of celebrity chef Mario Batali, is bang opposite the hotel. Make a reservation in advance, or if you can’t get in, console yourself with the cookbook. The Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St) is an excellent alternative, with a performance space downstairs – Suzanne Vega got her first big break here.
The cupcake craze is not going anywhere, and in this neighbourhood you’re spoilt for choice. The Magnolia Bakery (401 Bleecker St at West 11th), made famous by its appearances in Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada, has now expanded to three other sites in Manhattan (Upper West Side, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal) but this is the first and the original.
There are plenty of competitors for its crown: Sweet Revenge (62 Carmine St) is a bar that pairs its cupcakes with wine and beer, Crumbs Bake Shop (37 East 8th St) is famous for its ‘colossal’ cupcakes (the size of an average birthday cake), and Cupcake Stop (70 Greenwich Avenue) also has a mobile truck which parks at different destinations around the city daily – check their twitter feed for location details.
Beloved local gourmet deli Citarella (424 6th Ave at 9th St) also sells an impressive range of cupcakes and other baked goods, but is better known for its incredible array of seafood, aged meats and handcrafted breads. Head here to stock up for your Central Park picnic.
The White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St at 11th St) is one of the very few remaining artist and writer hangouts that is still open today. Dylan Thomas drank here, as did Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. Mix it up with locals, NYU students and tourists, and dream of that novel you’ll write one day. The Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher St) kickstarted the modern gay-rights movement after the infamous Stonewall Riots of 1969. Its bars on two levels have recently been renovated and host nightly events and parties.
Washington Square Park, next door to the hotel, is Greenwich Village’s landmark neighbourhood meeting place and centre of cultural and leisure activity. Most of the buildings that surround the park belong to New York University, so students are a permanent fixture here, along with plenty of buskers and street performers. The two most famous features are the Washington Square arch, which marks the beginning of Fifth Avenue, and the central fountain, made famous in the opening credits of sitcom Friends. There’s also a dog playground and a dedicated chess-playing area in the northwest corner nearest the hotel.
Slightly further afield (about a 20 minute walk from the hotel) is Manhattan’s newest public park, the High Line. Built on a former elevated freight railroad, the park’s southernmost entrance is at the junction of Gansevoort St and Washington St in the Meatpacking District, and runs as far north as 20th Street, with the Chelsea section expected to open later this summer, doubling the length of the park.
Fantastic views of Chelsea and its many new architectural wonders can be enjoyed here (Polshek Partnership’s Le Corbusier-style Standard Hotel and Frank Gehry’s IAC building are just two) and it’s especially beautiful at night when all the benches, water features, plants and flowers are imaginatively floodlit.
For further information, reservations and room rates, visit the Washington Square Hotel.
Virgin Atlantic operate daily flights from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK and Newark airports. For the very best fares visit virginatlantic.com