Walk About New York.: The Washington Arch, Part II

Late 19th-cetury New Yorkers fell in love with the Washington Arch that had been built to celebrate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration. Both the citizenry and city officials wished for a permanent version to replace the wood and plaster structure, which had straddled Lower Fifth Avenue at Washington Square North.

On the second of May 1889 the Committee on Erection of the Memorial Arch at Washington Square was approved by the Centennial Art and Exhibition Committee of New York City. The Committee soon dropped the word “Memorial” from its name. William Rhinelander Stewart had shown a real talent as a fundraiser for the wooden Arch; therefore, he was enlisted for the same task by the Arch Committee. With great optimism, Mr. Stewart pledged to raise enough money that would allow the Arch’s cornerstone to be set in place by April 30th 1890, the Centennial Celebration’s one-year anniversary.

Mr. White chose the theme for the Arch; he called it “Washington in War and Peace.”

Stanford White was retained as the Architect for the permanent Arch; he once again generously offered to work without compensation. The Committee initially planned to budget $75,000 for the project. Mr. White’s new designs increased the size of the Arch from his wooden version; and it was to be constructed in marble. The Arch was meant to be a modern interpretation of the ancient Roman triumphal form. Mr. White selected Tuckahoe marble, which was quarried in Westchester County just north of the city, as the construction material. He greatly admired its crystalline quality and purity of color. After reviewing the plans, the Commit- tee revised its budget to $100,000 for construction and $50,000 for sculptural decoration.

Mr. White chose the theme for the Arch; he called it “Washington in War and Peace.” He wanted images alluding to this theme amongst the carved panels on the structure’s faces. In the spandrels of the Arch, Mr. White wanted allegorical winged figures carrying symbols of war and peace. He included inscriptions in the design selected by the Arch Committee. On the north side, facing Fifth Avenue at the attic level, the inscription reads, “To commemorate the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States.” At the same level on the south-facing Park side, a quote from Washington was chiseled, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair — the event is in the hands of God.”

Mr. Stewart, as Arch Committee Treasurer, began sending subscription requests to Greenwich Village residents; in addition, he was organizing events that would donate the money collected to the Arch Fund. With the success of Mr. Stewart’s efforts, greater than even he expected, on April 30, 1890 a crowd gathered in Washington Square Park to witness the ground breaking for the Arch. Two weeks later, during excavation for the eastern pier, the construction men discovered human remains only 10 feet beneath the surface. These remains were part of a small German cemetery; between 1795 and 1825 the Park had been used as aPotter’s Field and private graveyard.
David H. King, Jr., who built the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, was commissioned to construct the Arch, which he agreed to do without adding his usual 10% commission. Frederick William MacMonnies was hired to carve the bas-relief decorations on the Arch, including the winged figures in the spandrels. Philip Martiny would sculpt the eagles. On April 30, 1892, Mr. Stewart was honored with the task of cementing the last stone in the Arch’s attic, three years after the project began.

The Washington Arch was formally dedicated on May 4, 1895. The ceremony was attended by dignitaries and elected officials, including President Grover Cleveland, New York State Governor Levi Morton and the Arch Committee. A military parade marched from Fifty-first Street to Washington Park. The Rev. Henry C. Potter of Grace Church gave the invocation. Several speeches were delivered. Next Mr. Stewart, representing the Arch Committee, presented the key to the Arch to the mayor of the City of New York, William Strong, formally transferring ownership of the Washington Arch to the city. Mayor Strong gave the key to the President of the Department of Public Parks, which is still responsible for the care of the Arch.

Another 20 years would pass before the familiar figures of Washington would be placed on their pedestals facing Fifth Avenue. Funded by a separate subscription these white marble images for the Arch’s north face had been part of Mr. White’s original plan. Washington in War is the work of Hermon Atkins MacNeil; it has stood on the eastern pier of the Arch since 1916. Washington in Peace was sculpted by Stirling Calder, father of Alexander Calder, inventor of the mobile; it has occupied the Arch’s western pier since 1918.

Discover more about Washington Square and the Village when you participate in a tour with the author during his Greenwich Village Art and History Walking Tour. Go to to book your tour!

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