Washington Square Arch

Washington Square Arch: A Centennial Celebration


The Arch 10 years after its completion. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection)

In 1889, New York City sponsored a large celebration to honor the Centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States. New York City felt a close connection to the anniversary, since it was on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street, on April 30, 1789 that Washington took his oath of office. The City planned the three-day festival with two goals in mind: “first, to recreate as nearly as possible the historic events of Washington’s time, and second, to flaunt the achievements of modern New York."1 While it was not part of the original plan, the Washington Square Arch was a permanent bi-product of these festivities.

The arch project was spearheaded by wealthy businessman and philanthropist, William Rhinelander Stewart, who lived at No. 17 Washington Square North. Stewart started a public subscription to fund a temporary arch to be erected just north of the Square on Fifth Avenue between his own home and that of Edward Cooper, mayor of New York City from 1887-1890. Stewart enlisted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White to design the memorial. Stewart was familiar with White from the remodel he and his firm did on the Episcopalian Church of Ascension (1885-1889), which was greatly funded by members of the Rhinelander family, and in which was erected as a memorial to Stewart's maternal grandparents, William C. Rhinelander and Mary Rogers.

Stewart signed a contract with White in March 1889. After submitting three designs to Stewart, one was finally agreed upon which was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and contained Greek and Roman details. The wood-framed, plaster-coated arch was ornamented "with a frieze of garlands and wreaths of laurels in paper mache.”2 A craftsman named Joseph Cabus was hired to do the woodwork. He painted the entire structure in ivory white except for the ten-foot statue of General Washington at the arch’s apex which retained its original colors. This statue, allegedly once stood in Battery Park in 1792, which would make it this first statue of George Washington erected in New York City.3 Once completed, the wooden arch stood 50 feet wide and 71 feet high. It spanned Fifth Avenue widely, so that traffic could still pass underneath.

The Centennial Committee changed the route of the parade so that it could pass under the monument, diverting it from Broadway, at Union Square, to Fifth Avenue. On April 30th, the day of the celebration, a military parade eleven miles long shuffled through the City and passed underneath the memorial arch into Washington Square.

By the end of festivities, the City agreed that the arch should be made permanent. On May 2, the Centennial Art and Exhibition Committee of New York City approved the idea and organized the “Committee on Erection of the Memorial Arch at Washington Square”. The Committee later dropped “Memorial” from the official name.4 William Stewart proved himself a talented fundraiser and received an appointment to the Arch Commission as treasurer, promising to acquire funds quickly enough to lay the Arch’s cornerstone by the Centennial Celebration’s one-year anniversary.

White began new designs for a larger arch; one which stands to this day at 79 feet high by 57 feet wide. White wanted the arch to appear as a modern interpretation of the classic triumphal form. He reduced the bulk of the piers and kept the surfaces unadorned, in order to give the arch a sleeker, lighter appearance than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and other previous Roman style arches.5 White chose Tuckahoe marble as the construction material. He appreciated its crystalline quality and purity of color. He was unfortunately unaware of the fact that this stone tends to shear-off over time.6

White placed images alluding to the arch’s theme within the carved panels on the structure’s faces – a wreath of oak around a sword symbolizing war juxtaposed with wreaths of laurel representing victory. In the curved spandrels of the arch, White placed allegorical winged figures carrying war and peace themed symbols such as banners, horns, and laurel wreaths. He included inscriptions in the design selected by the Arch Committee. On the north side the inscription reads, “To commemorate the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States.” On the south side, a quote from Washington himself reads, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair - the event is in the hands of God.”

On April 30, 1890 a crowd gathered in Washington Square Park to attend the ground breaking for the arch. While excavating the eastern pier don May 13, 1890, the construction crew hit human remains only 10 feet below ground surface. The remains they found - judging by the inscriptions on the accompanying gravestones - were from a small German cemetery whose inhabitants were not moved when the land was leveled over. The presence of these bodies and gravestones dating to 1803, was an unhappy reminder of the Park's former use as a Potter's Field, which included several private cemeteries.7

Construction began on the arch in April 1891, after the Committee successfully raised $100,000 for the endeavor. The Arch Committee commissioned James Sinclair & Co. to prepare the marble, David H. King to Build the Arch, and Frederick William MacMonnies to execute the carved relief work on the arch.

The arch made its main debut during the Columbian Celebration of 1892; a festival planned to commemorate when Christopher Columbus sailed to the 'New World' four-hundred years earlier. The Committee sped up construction to ensure the arch’s completion by October 11, the day of the Columbus Parade, so that the procession could pass under the new structure. For the celebration the Edison Electric Illuminating Company attached 348 lights to the arch, complementing the permanent double row of electric lights that adorned Fifth Avenue.

Although structurally complete, the arch still lacked much of the sculptural decoration MacMonnies was hired to add. Additionally, a separate subscription would be taken to raise the funds for the statues of Washington in War (designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil) and Washington in Peace (designed by Alexander Stirling Calder) which front the piers facing Fifth Avenue. The cost of fabrication impeded their placement until 1916 and 1918, respectively.8

The arch received its formal dedication on May 4, 1895 at a packed ceremony attended by dignitaries and elected officials, including President Grover Cleveland, Governor Levi Morton and the Arch Committee. The crowd reflected the Greenwich Village neighborhood, consisting of a mixture of New York's upper and lower classes. During the dedication, William Rhinelander Stewart, the Greenwich Villager who started it all, presented the Arch's key to Mayer Strong, formally transferring the Washington Arch to the City of New York.

For Further Reading:

  1. Gallery of images of the arch through the ages
  2. Conservation efforts from the New York City Parks Department
  3. A brief sketch of the architectural work of Mead, McKim, & White
  4. The finding aid of the William Rhinelander Stewart Papers at the NYPL
  5. The Smithsonian's digital images of a scrapbook made by Bessie White and Stanford White regarding Washington's Inauguration Centennial Celebration

Folpe, Emily Kies. It Happened on Washington Square. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Skeletons in the Way: Bones and Coffins Unearthed in Washington Square. New York Times. May 13, 1890.

The History of the Washington Square Arch. New York, NY: Ford and Garnett Publishers, 1896.

Ulmann, Albert. A Landmark History of New York. New York, NY: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1939.

Wolfe, Gerard R. New York, 15 walking tours: an architectural guide to the metropolis. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003.

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