There are lot of things about New York City that seem to defy explanation: where all the baby pigeons go, why cabdrivers are almost always men, how mailmen get into locked lobbies, and — most significantly — why any of us choose to live in this "massive, trash-ridden hellhole that slowly sucks the life out of every one of its inhabitants."
But when a reader asked us why Bartel-Pritchard Square, at the intersection of Prospect Park West and Prospect Park Southwest in Windsor Terrace, is called a "square" when it's actually a circle, we were determined to find an answer.
There are in fact quite a few city locations named squares that aren't actually square in shape.
As noted urban planner Alexander Garvin pointed out to DNAinfo, the bow tie-shaped Times "Square" contains a triangular plaza named Father Duffy "Square."
Other examples include Queens' Hollis Veterans Square, a triangle, and Westchester Square in the Bronx, which is gem-shaped. In Manhattan, a map of the borough's squares printed by the New York Observer in 1991 — and shared with us by the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy at the New York Public Library — in 1991 indicates that the majority aren't square-shaped, and many don't even qualify as quadrilaterals.
But in the case of Bartel-Pritchard Square, in June 1922, the plaza was dedicated to the honor of two young Brooklyn natives who died fighting in World War I in France. Emil J. Bartel Jr. and William Pritchard were both members of the 59th Coastal Artillery.
Of the ceremony marking the dedication of "the circle now known as the Bartel-Pritchard Square," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "As if it were an echo sounding far in the rear of the 6,000 people gathered yesterday afternoon to witness the dedication of the Bartel-Pritchard Square ... a bugle called out long after the first taps were still, and the noise of the cars encircling the new square could not drown out its tones."
The paper felt no need to comment on the blatant geometric inconsistency.
So perhaps, we thought, there had once been a square where, in 1922, there was a circle.
An 1869 map of the area, while Prospect Park was still a work-in-progress, shows a circular entrance to the park.
Much of the land had previously belonged to one man, Edwin Clark Litchfield, who would have had no need of traffic circles.
Frustrated by maps and other historical records, we decided to inspect the issue from the vantage of semantics.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "square" as, among many other things, "an open space or area (approximately quadrilateral and rectangular) in a town or city, enclosed by buildings or dwelling-houses, ... frequently containing a garden or laid out with trees, etc.; more generally, any open space resembling this, especially one formed at the meeting or intersection of streets."
Bartel-Pritchard Square did contain a flower garden in 1922, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Abingdon Square, pictured in 1852 map above, is only one of many public squares that aren't square-shaped. (Credit: NYPL)
But our readers aren't the only New Yorkers irked by geometric dissonance.
A 1952 clipping from The Villager, provided by Milstein, noted that it "seem[ed] to be unknown as why" the West Village's triangular Jackson Square Park "was called a 'square.'"
During the last year of former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern's tenure, which ended in 2002, plazas like Lady Moody Square in Gravesend, Brooklyn were renamed to describe their geometric shape. (Today, the square is "Lady Moody Triangle.") The re-christening was done without capital funding or renovation, said a spokesperson for the parks department.
Alas, Stern's beneficence did not grace Bartel-Pritchard Square. So if its name is still bugging you, take heart in this alternate definition of the word "square": "a parade ground."
Maybe the city's Board of Aldermen, today the City Council, had that in mind when they passed their resolution.