Monday, November 21, 2022

The Lost Altar to Liberty - Madison Square


On the face of the central part of the monument was a map of the Western Front.  Architecture magazine, November 1918 (copyright expired)

American patriotism exploded following the country's entry into World War I on April 6. 1917.   Within three months, the stretch of Fifth Avenue from Madison Square to 59th Street was branded "The Avenue of the Allies," and three temporary monuments--The Altar of Liberty in Madison Square, the Arch of Victory at 24th Street, and the Arch of Jewels at the northern end--were being planned.

The Altar of Liberty, which would edge up to the sidewalk facing Fifth Avenue, was designed by Thomas Hastings, of Carrere & Hastings.  He incorporated quotations from statemen like Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau into the design.  Hastings explained the neo-Classical structure in Greater New York magazine one year later.  Interestingly, he stressed that his focus was not merely on World War I, but on civilization's fight for freedom in general, including slavery.  He said in part:

On either side of the Altar the chain armor, the shields, helmets and chains symbolize the early spirit of asceticism, mediaeval feudalism and finally slavery in our own time and country overcome by the continuous progress of civilization.  The Altar in its ensemble and in the selected quotations from men who think and men in authority, shown in the large panels at either side, is intended to signify and uphold the real moral issue that this is a war upon the very institution of war itself, to conquer and overthrow militarism in order to establish, with limited armament, reason and justice in all intercourse between nations.

The altar was dedicated by Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall on September 28, 1918.  Several thousand people crammed Fifth Avenue, and the New-York Tribune reported, "the great mass of citizens reacted to the stimulus of great events and lofty utterances by signing their names to orders for bonds--in quietly mobilizing their savings for service in the war."  It was the first instance of a series of Liberty Bond drives to take place at the Altar of Liberty.

The flags of the Allied nations fly during the dedication ceremonies on September 28, 1918.  image via the Granger Collection

There would also be specific days dedicated to each of the Allied nations along The Avenue of Allies and at the Altar of Liberty.  On October 10, 1918, The Christian Advocate explained, "Each avenue block is decorated with the flags of one of the Allied countries, and each day at noon a representative of a different nation is escorted to the altar, where he lays upon it a floral offering and makes an address, which ends with an exhortation to buy bonds."

General Gvosdenovitch speaking at the Altar of Liberty on Montenegrin Day on October 11, 1918.  from the archives of the Department of War, Washington D. C.

In 1920, Valentine's Manual of Old New York described the Avenue of the Allies and the Altar of Liberty:

The Altar of Liberty at Madison Square--an extraordinarily beautiful work of art--was the center of attraction for the crowds who came out to boost the Liberty Loan.  Fifth Avenue was decorated gorgeously.  Such richness and beauty of color was never seen before.  Each block was decorated with the colors of one particular nation of the Allies, and the avenue for the time became known as the Avenue of the Allies.

The Commonwealth, November 26, 1918 (copyright expired)

The flag-lined thoroughfare was memorialized in Childe Hassam's famous series of paintings, known as the Flag Series, in 1918.

World War I came to an end on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.  That same day the National Sculpture Society met "to discuss ways and means to embody the Altar of Liberty into a permanent 'Victory Arch' that will remain, for all time, as a monument to America's part in the war," reported The Evening World.  The proposed rendering featured an arch of victory, atop which was a grouping of soldiers and a bi-plane, a colonnade, and a fountain and large reflecting pond complete with a submarine. 

Theresa Ferber Bernstein painted Armistice Day Parade: The Altar of Liberty in 1919.  from the collection of Smith College

Plans for demolishing the Altar of Liberty proceeded quickly.  Robert Davis, a colonel with the Field Artillery in Germany, sent a plea to delay the razing through a letter to The New York Times on December 12, 1918:

I speak for a large number of us to whom has fallen the lot of garrisoning captured areas in Germany during the coming dreary Winter when I ask that you use your influence to prevent the removal of the much-read-of 'Altar of Liberty' from New York until such time as the army shall have been returned to the States.

We feel that we are as anxious to see what you have done in the States as you are to inspect the work accomplished by us here.

Davis got his wish.  As the returning American troops marched up Fifth Avenue, they paused at the Altar of Liberty.  One officer, Colonel William Hayward, echoed Thomas Hastings's thoughts on freedom to the crowd on May 2, 1919.  Hayward was the commander of the "colored" New York 15th Regiment."  Segregated from white troops, the Black regiments were always commanded by white officers.  Standing at the Altar of Liberty at noon that day, he announced, "If there is any one here who does not approve of the principles for which my men fought let them clear out of the country and don't let them buy any Victory notes.  Let those who approve those principles have the privilege of buying."

from the collection of the Library of Congress

Four months later, two million spectators lined five miles of Fifth Avenue to welcome General John J. Pershing and the famous First Division.  The Chattanooga Daily Times wrote, "It was the last great review of the war for New York and it was a fitting climax to a long series of military spectacles."  The article noted, "Perhaps the most impressive moment of the parade was when the soldiers reached the altar of liberty at Twenty-third street, where drums were muffled, colors 'dipped' and officers saluted in memory of the nation's heroic dead."

Shortly afterward, the Altar of Liberty was scrapped.  Proposals to replace it with a permanent structure were discussed for two more years.  After that, the memory of Thomas Hastings "extraordinarily beautiful work of art" faded from memory.

Many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I loved the Bernstein painting, but I had no idea what monument it was referring to. So many thanks
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  2. What is the building to the left in the fourth photo?

    1. That was Stanford White's magnificent Madison Square Garden.

  3. This is now the site of the Eternal Light Flagstaff, NYC’s memorial to those served in WW1. There was discussion after the war about creating a huge memorial. You might do a post on the various proposals - some are wild. But the Eternal Light Flagstaff is now the epicenter of NYC’s Veterans Day Ceremonies.

  4. Was it constructed of plaster and horse hair, like the temporary buildings of the Chicago World's Fair?

    1. I would have been wood and plaster and, most likely, a strengthener like horse hair, yes.