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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Washington Square Arch Turns 115 Today

Today marks the 115th anniversary of the unveiling of the marble memorial arch in Washington Square. Designed by famed architect Stanford White, the arch was built between 1890-1892, making it the first significant edifice in the city's Beaux Arts period.

White actually built the arch twice. The first one was made of wood, plaster, and 
papier-mâché and erected on Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square in 1889 as a part of the festivities in honor of the centennial of George Washington's inaugural. (The Washington centennial was one of the largest parties New York had ever thrown. Its massive parade not only featured President Benjamin Harrison but also former presidents Cleveland and Arthur and every governor of the 22 states then in the Union.) As soon as the centennial festivities were over, a fundraising committee was established to create a permanent, marble replacement.

Though construction of the arch proceeded quickly -- it was certainly complete by the Christopher Columbus quadricentennial in October 1892 -- the official unveiling did not take place until May 4, 1895. A huge crowd gathered to watch the military and New York's governor (former Vice President Levi P. Morton) parade down Fifth Avenue to the arch; the New York Times exclaimed that "a more orderly, courteous, and intelligent gathering of people has never been seen in New-York City than that which occupied the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue yesterday."

In fact, the arch wasn't fully complete when it was unveiled: the two statue bases on the Fifth Avenue side of the arch were conspicuously empty and would remain that way until 1915-17 when the two statues of Washington were finally erected. (Notice that the statues are missing in the early photo, above.)

The arch was the first major structure to embody the principles of the growing City Beautiful movement. That movement is often associated with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but White's arch came first. An article in the Times in 1894 about the brand-new Municipal Arts Society, sums up the goals of the City Beautiful thinkers:

"The adornment of courtrooms and public buildings  with paintings and statuary keeps before the poorest and most indifferent citizens several things which cannot be too frequently presented to their eyes. One is that New-York is a great city with an illustrious past, a city to be loved, taken pride in, and guarded from despoilers from within and without. Another is that New-York contains many thousands of people who are not blind to the higher needs of the mass of citizens less energetic or less fortunate than themselves. The bitterness of poverty and disappointment is sweetened a little by signs of interest in, signs of respect for, the great mass of toilers."
So, head on down to Washington Square today to look at White's magnificent monument -- and show respect for the great mass of toilers -- and celebrate the beginning of Beaux Arts New York.

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Not only is the Washington Arch a stop on the Greenwich Village tour in our book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, it is also featured in the special tour we put together of Stanford White's New York, which you can download here. (To do the Stanford White tour, you will need a copy of Inside the Apple, available online or at fine bookstores everywhere.)

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