History of the Washington Square Arch & “Exitus Acta Probat”

* Recycled entry for George Washington’s Birthday *

On each side of the famous Washington Square Arch stands George Washington in two distinct poses at its pedestal: Washington At War on the East side and Washington At Peace on the West. The Arch was designed by noted period architect Stanford White (1853-1906).

Originally built in wood for the Centennial of Washington’s inauguration in 1889, it stood half a block away. It was then commissioned in marble and completed in its current location in the early 1890’s.

Of the Washington At War statue, Emily Kies Folpe, in her book, “It Happened on Washington Square,” wrote that the sculptor, Herman A. Mac Neil, wanted the statue “to appear alert and intent, as if watching the maneuvers of his army.” Looking on are the figures of Fame and Valor.

Pictured above is Washington At Peace (A. Stirling Calder) with figures of Wisdom and Justice behind him. Wisdom stands there as “the modern Athena” – Greek goddess of wisdom. Folpe writes, “Justice, draped and crowned, holding a balanced set of scales with one hand and an open book in the other. The pages of the book are inscribed with the words Exitus acta probat.’ ”

Exitus acta probat is taken from the George Washington Family Coat of Arms. It is Latin and I’ve come across various ways of interpreting it, all similar but slight variations. The basic translation is: the outcome justifies the deed.

It’s the pairing of that statement with the figure of Justice that puzzles me. I like to think at Washington Square Park that ultimately there will be some kind of ‘Justice’ in the outcome of the redesign of the Park. Is there some missing deed?

Of course, Stanford White’s “outcome” was a little bit jarring. He was shot on the roof of the Madison Square Garden building, the second incarnation of the building (no longer there) which he also designed, by the husband of an ex-lover.

** Recently, a commenter named Hugh wrote in clarifying with the following information:

The outcome justifying the deed that Washington was referring to was the Revolutionary war. No one wanted war then, not only was it near suicide for all who opposed the English, but also, war causes a lot of death which is also something that he didn’t want, however, if the end result was freedom and liberty, then a horrible deed such as war is in fact justified. It shows that Washington believed that unless the outcome is justified, then the deed should not be done.

Piece originally published April 3, 2008; this is an edited version.

The Washington Square Arch: Some Additional History

Washington Sq Arch late 1800's/early 1900's

The Arch at Washington Square Park was originally built in wood half a block away from its current location for the Centennial of George Washington’s Presidential inauguration in 1889. It was then commissioned in marble and completed in its current location at Fifth Avenue in the early 1890’s. The community came together to raise funds to build the permanent Washington Square Arch which was designed by noted architect Stanford White. The sculptures which adorn the ‘legs’ of the Arch — Washington At War and Washington at Peace, described in this previous blog entry — were not completed until 1916 and 1918.

The picture above must have been taken at some point between 1892 and 1916 – before the pedestal sculptures were completed as they are missing in the photo. Also note the decorative fence in foreground.

Stanford White died in 1906 (he was murdered atop the 2nd version of Madison Square Garden, since demolished, a building he also designed) and did not see the two Washington sculptures completed and adorning the Arch.

Judson Memorial Church, another building White designed, can be seen through the Arch – as White intended.

More on the history of the Washington Square Arch, “Exitus Acta Probat” (the Washington Family Coat of Arms) and architect Stanford White here.

Thank you to Matt Kovary for sending this photo in.

Talk on Stanford White, designer of Washington Square Arch, Tues. Dec. 9th, Manhattan

Stanford White-designed Washington Sq Arch

Stanford White-designed Washington Sq Arch

Stanford White was the noted designer of the Washington Square Park Arch. A renowned architect, part of the illustrious firm McMead, Kim & White, he originally designed the first version of the Arch which was built in wood, half a block away from its current location, for the Centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889.

The Arch was then commissioned in marble and completed in its current location (Fifth Avenue and Washington Square North) in the early 1890’s. The public itself raised the money for the Arch and it was considered a big success.

I learned a lot about the Arch preparing for my Walking TourWashington Square Park: Past, Present and Future: A Guide to New York City’s Redesign of a Perfect Public Space.” One of my favorite points of note is that there are thirteen wreath-encircled stars near the top of the Arch – one for each original state – alternating with “W” for Washington. Also the two sculptures on each side of the Arch (“Washington At War” and “Washington at Peace“) are of interest. To read more about them and the Washington Family coat of Arms (“exitus acta probat“), see this previous entry.

Stanford White died tragically at the age of 53.

The Armory is conducting a discussion on Stanford White tomorrow evening, Tuesday, December 9th. Here is their description:

Stanford White, Architect

By the time of his death at fifty-three, Stanford White had transformed himself into the most celebrated architects in America. He was also one of its most prolific designers, a tastemaker of such stature that Harper’s Weekly declared he should be appointed Commissioner of Public Beauty. White’s passion for beauty was accompanied by an evolving taste. Early designs, such as his collaboration on the Armory’s Veterans’ Room, embraced the generous and inventive attributes of the Aesthetic Movement, while the work of his maturity reveals the same powerful imagination applied to a more traditional classical idiom.

Samuel White Lecturer

Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Reception 6:00pm
Program 6:30pm–8:00pm

643 Park Avenue, New York, NY – Phone: (212) 616-3930


Washington Square Park Task Force Meeting Report back coming later this afternoon!