Why did Henry James hate the Washington Square Arch? Meanwhile, the Arch officially turns 117

Washington Memorial Arch Original Plans

Writer Henry James used Washington Square as the name (and setting) for for one of his well known novels published in 1881; it was also one of his least favorite of ones he’d written. James grew up nearby on Washington Place and his grandmother lived at 18 Washington Square North (now part of 2 Fifth Avenue). He was in Europe in the late 1890s when the Arch was built.

The official dedication ceremony and unveiling of the Arch took place on May 4th, 1895. This makes the Arch now 117 years old! Gothamist marked the Anniversary with photos from the history of the Arch taken from the Municipal Archives (thanks Gothamist!).

Henry James returned to the Washington Square area in the early 1900s to find the new Arch erected and his childhood home demolished (by NYU … some things don’t change?). Both occurrences were seemingly sources of great displeasure for him. James described the Arch as “the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square–lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state.”

Walking off the Big Apple wrote about Henry James’ Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square, recounting his reaction upon finding these changes upon his return:

Henry James (1843-1916) … was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home. During the 1890s, while James was living in Europe, the school pulled down its older main building on the east side of Washington Square to make way for new buildings. In “New York Revisited,” James describes his return to the city in 1904 after a long absence, and though he comes across many familiar sights, he’s startled by the loss of his home on Washington Place. 

James continues by observing that with the destruction of his house, a commemorative tablet about his life would not be placed on its wall; “the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable.”

Tablet equals plaque I believe.

In Pete Hamill’s Downtown: My Manhattan, he writes that Henry James “hated” the Arch and surmises that the new “bohemia” taking place in the area might have been the reason that in 1915 the writer became “a British subject.” But I wonder if it was more the loss of his childhood home which he did not take well and perhaps the advent of the Arch a bit too that pushed him in that direction. Notably, James died one year later.

* Previously at WSP Blog: History of the Washington Square Arch and “Exitus Acta Probat”

Photo: NYC Municipal Archives

The Arch’s Roman Numerals

Roman Numerals on Eastern side of Arch

It’s funny when you notice something that you never have before. Walking from the Eastern side of the Park towards the Arch the other day, I noticed, for the first time, that there are Roman numerals up top on the eastern side of the structure. Having not thought about reading Roman numerals in a pretty long while, I did a bit of research to relearn how to decipher them (which was sort of fun).

The date there on the side of the Arch is not what I would have expected. The Arch was created to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. It was first constructed in wood and unveiled to commemorate the centennial in 1889. It originally resided half a block away from its current location; the version we see today was later constructed in marble and made permanent.

The date on the side of the Arch is not 1889 to mark the centennial and when the first Arch was built nor the date when the current Arch was finished – 1890-1892 – but is 1789 – the actual year of Washington’s inauguration. (This is assuming I have read these Roman numerals correctly which I’m pretty sure I have.) We wouldn’t do it that way today – marking that date instead of the date of construction or some other significance.

It’s amazing reflecting on how old – and magnificent – the Arch is.

* Previously at WSP Blog: History of the Washington Square Arch and “Exitus Acta Probat”

Photos: Cathryn.

The Arch in the Rain


Yesterday.

Photo: Cathryn.

Washington Square: The Arch, Fifth Avenue

The Arch and Fifth Avenue

March 2010.

Wall Street Journal Goes Inside the Washington Square Arch!

The Door (Easy to Miss)

Well that’s the Washington Arch to you (and me). A reporter from the Wall Street Journal gains access to inside – and top of – the Arch.

Inside the Washington Arch:

“We don’t allow people up here,” the [NYC] historic preservationist explained. “The stairway is quite dangerous and the roof is quite fragile. If we allowed the public up here, the roof would fail quite quickly.”

That’s a pity because the view from the top of the arch is unparalleled, quite literally at a crossroads of the city’s history.

Looking north, you get a clear shot all the way up Fifth Avenue. The skyscrapers of Wall Street rise to the south, the construction of the Freedom Tower proceeding apace and now clearly visible. Just below you is the park itself, brittle and beautiful in the winter morning light, and the genteel Greek Revival townhouses of Washington Square North.

Mr. Krawchuk [Parks Department] said that in 1917 a group of “Bohemians” led by the artists Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan and the poet Gertrude Drick broke into the arch and climbed to the roof. “They had a picnic and a party and drank tea late into the night,” he said, though one suspects stronger beverages might also have been involved. “Gertrude Drick read a proclamation declaring the free and independent state of Greenwich Village. Sloan did an etching of them all huddled here in the early morning hours.”

I’ve always secretly wanted to go to the top of the Arch. One Christmas Eve, a few years back, the door was left ajar and I stepped in the entryway and peeked up the stairs. I was tempted. I could almost see as much as the pictures that accompany the article show (Parks Department must have put restrictions as such). The view from the top does sound quite impressive; as for now, I can only imagine.

Photo: Daniella Zalcman