21 Washington Place

Though throughout his life he maintained that his earliest memories were of the Place Vendome in Paris, the novelist Henry James (1843-1916) always remained nostalgic for his first childhood home at No. 21 Washington Place. Purchased by his father in 1842 for $18,000, the brick townhouse between Greene Street and Mercer Street was also the writer's birthplace. During their residence at 21 Washington Place, the James family, which included Henry's elder brother, William -- later in life the renowned pragmatist philosopher -- were visited by both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their house would have been similar to those surrounding nearby Washington Square Park (above).

In his collection of travel essays, The American Scene, Henry James meditated on returning to his birthplace from Europe in 1904 -- after a 21-year absence from the United States -- only to discover that it was no longer there:

This was the snub, for the complacency of retrospect, that, whereas the inner sense had positively erected there for its private contemplation a commerorative mural tablet, the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable. And I have indeed to permit myself this free fantasy of the hypothetic rescued identity of a given house -- taking the vanished number in Washington Place as most pertinent -- in order to invite the reader to gasp properly with me before the fact that we not only fail to remember, in the whole length of the city, one of these frontal records of birth, sojourn, or death, under a celebrated name, but that we have only to reflect an instant to see any such form of civic piety inevitably and forever absent . . . .

Many years after the James family moved out of No. 21 Washington Place it was torn down and replaced with a larger eight-story building (below), which today is one of numerous buildings around Washington Square owned by New York University.


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