Friday, May 13, 2011

Stanford White's Washington Square Arch

photo by David Shankbone
Victorian New Yorkers were eager for any reason to stage elaborate celebrations with public fanfare and the approaching centennial of George Washington’s inauguration on April 30, 1889 provided just such an excuse. The anniversary would also provide an opportunity to remind the country that New York was the nation's first capitol.

In 1887, while several different groups were hatching ideas for the celebration, William Rhinelander Stewart – a member of the wealthy Rhinelander real estate and sugar-importing family – devised his own idea of the festivities. That same year Queen Victoria’s 50th year on the throne was celebrated in London with elaborate displays around temporary triumphal arches.

While such arches had been a fixture in major European cities for centuries, there had never been a stone arch erected in the United States to date.

Stewart approached architect Stanford White to serve as director of the commemoration. The idea of a temporary arch was almost immediately brought up and equally-quickly agreed upon. White designed a wooden structure slathered with “staff” -- a mixture of molded plaster over straw. Costing $2,500 raised through private donations, it was erected one block north of Washington Square, spanning 5th Avenue a few days before the centennial date.

The original plaster and wooden arch spanned 5th Avenue  block north of Washington Square -- photo Library of Congress
The plaster was painted a gleaming ivory-white and adorned with molded ornamentation of festoons and wreaths. A 10-foot high polychrome statue of Washington found in an antique shop was placed on top.

The public loved it. Of the four temporary arches erected throughout the city for the event, this one took the cake.

“One of the most beautiful arches erected in the city is the Washington triumphal arch,” wrote The New York Times on April 28, 1889. “The idea has been to carry out a type of architecture whch prevailed during colonial and Washington’s own time, and which belongs more naturally to this country than any other.”

Bunting hung from the arch and bunches of flags were arranged at the sides including foreign flags of countries “from whom the population of this country is mainly recruited by immigration.”

Two stuffed American bald eagles were mounted on either side of the keystone, the larger measuring 7 feet, 6 inches. White embellished the arch with electrical lights, provided by the Edison Light Company, and powered by a generator in a neighboring yard. The noise of the generator proved nearly as irritating as the spectacle of the hundreds of lights were beautiful.

The arch was so well-received that there arose an immediate outcry for a permanent version. The newspaper, the Critic, first suggested a granite reproduction and the Committee on Art quickly applauded the idea. It was also quickly agreed that the stone arch would necessarily have to be located within Washington Square – the bases on the sidewalks of 5th Avenue would hinder foot traffic.

Not everyone was in favor of the location, however. The Real Estate Record and Guide argured that “Twenty years from now the neighborhood will be so changed in character that no one will visit near it,” and wealthy politician Orlando B. Potter complained that the location would hinder the construction of a 5th Avenue elevated railroad.

The plan, nevertheless, went on.

A month after the centennial celebrations, Stanford White suggested that the arch be constructed of marble rather than granite and that it be decorated with sculptural groups. The amount of the fund necessary was raised to $100,000 for the arch and another $50,000 for the sculptures.

Other voices chimed in, The Charleston News proposing that the arch should be constructed of native stone from the 13 original states. “Let its base be made of South Carolina granite,” the paper said, “and let all the others of the original states contribute to the columns upon which the triumphal arch will rest.”

Ground was broken in an understated ceremony on April 30, 1890 and within two weeks laborers realized they were digging up skeletons, headstones and coffins. The site was besieged by curious onlookers and Stanford White instructed that work stop until “a sketch can be made of the scene.” Two stones inscribed 1803 confirmed that the workers had unearthed an old German cemetery which was buried under eight feet of new soil when the Square was leveled.

The bones were reinterred and the work went on above the graves.

The completed arch in 1895 nearly a two decades before the first of the sculptural groups would be installed -- photo NYPL Collection
On May 4, 1895 the completed arch built of Tuckahoe marble was dedicated with great pomp and ceremony. Sculpture Frederick William MacMonnies had designed the bulk of the ornamentation which was then carried out by the master Italian stone carvers of the Piccirilli Studio. MacMonnies used his own wife’s face as the model for Peace and Stanford White’s wife, Bessie, for War. The massive marble eagles were designed by Philip Martiny.
The south side (seen in 1901) was essentially identical before the statuary was added to the north elevation -- photo Library of  Congress
Despite both Stanford White and master building David H. King (who constructed, among other grand structures, the base of the Statue of Liberty and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s massive 5th Avenue mansion) donating their services, the cost of the arch neared $134,000.

The completed arch was not, however, complete.

The sculptural groupings White envisioned for the north piers were still to be executed. Another fund-raising campaign was initiated while designs were worked out.

Artist Hermon Atkins MacNeil designed the eastern statue depicting Washington as Commander-in-Chief. Behind him MacNeil placed bas-reliefs of Fame and Valor. The statue was installed in 1916. Two years later the companion group, by sculptor Alexander Stirling Caldor, was added. Caldor’s Washington portrays him as a statesman, accompanied by Wisdom and Justice. Both statues were executed in the Piccirilli Studio and carved of Dover marble.

A year before Caldor’s statue was installed a group of actors and artists including Marcel Duchamp and John Sloan who representated Greenwich Village’s growing bohemian nature, took over the arch. Occupying its roof and lighting bonfires, they declared Greenwich Village an independent nation.

Caldor's statesman Washington in 1934 (left) and in 2003 after decades of acid rain -- photo San Diego Miramar College
In 1964, after decades of acid rain and pollution had eroded the marble of the arch, a clumsy attempt was made to restore the Washington statues. The process left the priceless figures in worse condition. A $2.7 restoration was initiated in 2003 funded with private and city donations. The leaking roof was replaced, the statues repaired, the spandrel figures restored and 45 of the 95 rosettes on the underside were replaced or repaired.
photo by Matthew Jesuele
At its rededication ceremony, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped “Paris has one near the Champs Elysees, MacDonalds' are golden like French fries they say, St. Louis has one next to the Mississippi, but for every New Yorker, especially ex-hippies, the arch you love most of all is right there, shining gloriously over Washington Square.”

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