by Daniel Huang
Resolute in its magnificence, the Washington Square arch stares down Fifth Avenue on one side and plays guardian to the park on the other, watching over its fountain, its trees, and its people. It has stood tall over this space for over 120 years, unblinking through lazy afternoons, fervent protests, and everything in between. It’s a rare constant while all around it changes. For a landmark made so special by its soothing presence, it boasts a fascinating past, one intertwined with the history of the city where it resides.
Born in 1889 from the celebration of George Washington’s 100-year inauguration anniversary, the arch was designed by Stanford White, an influential architect whose impressive body of work was matched only by an equally noteworthy personal life. Remembered today as much for dotting New York City with his buildings as for his glorious red moustache and propensity to seduce young women (including the affair which led to his spectacular death), White modeled the arch after the Roman-inspired triumphal arch, a form that had already gained esteem in late eighteenth century Europe.
Originally cast out of wood and plaster and presiding over Fifth Avenue at Eighth Street, the arch was such a hit with local citizens that calls for the construction of a permanent arch quickly gained traction. However, mouths were quicker to open than wallets and obtaining the funds to pay for the work dragged on.
“It had great appeal to the rich living in the area,” says Mosette Broderick, an NYU professor of art history. “Which was humorous because, much like the base below the Statue of Liberty, no one was actually willing to pay for it.”
It wasn’t until Ignace Jan Padereski, a highly regarded Polish pianist, agreed to play a fund-raising concert at the Metropolitan Opera House that financing would finally be resolved. As one of its lesser-known facts — an asterisk beside the arch’s origin both ironic and perhaps a little telling — one more of the many international symbols of New York City was actually paid for by a foreigner.
More fascinating than the dealings that brought the arch into existence is what its erection came to represent. Throughout most of the 19th century, downtown Manhattan was inhabited by the gentry, a class of people with social capital to spare — the American equivalent to English aristocrats. They had made their fortunes in the seaport and merchant business, but towards the end of the century many had retired from work life and were rapidly approaching a different, more absolute form of retirement.
“By the time the arch was built, some of the old gentry still lived around Washington Square but most of them, or rather their kids, were moving up, up, up Fifth Avenue,” explains Broderick. “This new gentry class began populating the Upper East and Upper West Side. They built mansions, owned yachts, and generally lived their lives in a much less limited, more showoff-y way than you had seen in Washington Square a generation earlier.”
In real estate terms, this small-scale migration saw the deflation of property value around Washington Square. Consequently, it drew a new wave of inhabitants who could now afford the rent. Occurring concurrently in the nearby West Village, foreign-inspired establishments were popping up — “a French restaurant here, a Swiss hotel there” describes Broderick — giving the area a more diverse appeal. In the decades that followed, the village neighborhoods were adopted by creatives and eccentrics from all over, infusing the place with the lively Bohemian flair and European flavor that would become its character for much of the 20th century.
The role of the arch in this transformation was twofold: it both contributed to the shift and became the symbol that embodied it.
“What the arch did is bring Paris to New York and bring New York to the old world in terms of art cities,” says Broderick. “It allowed New York to present itself as a major urban center for the arts.”
New York now had an arch of its own and while it “did not radiate out grand streets as did the Arc de Triomphe, it did begin Fifth Avenue in style,” writes Broderick in her book Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White.
Adding to its legend and air of adventure was the urbane break-in of Marcel Duchamp, one of the twentieth century’s most significant artists, and a gang of his friends. On a cold winter night in 1917, wine bottles in hand, the group “forced passage into an interior staircase, climbed to the top of the arch, fired cap pistols, launched balloons, and declared the independent republic of Bohemia,” writes Pete Hamill, author of the memoir Downtown: My Manhattan.
Today, for better or for worse, little of the Bohemian romance from those times remains. The arch still stands proudly, but now more often as the backdrop of tourist photos and the de facto stamp of NYU. While it bears no official affiliation to the university, there is no arguing that our school community has embraced it in its entirety.
As freshmen, we walk through on the first day of Welcome Week and step under the arch’s gaze. For four years, it listens to us and supports us. During late nights in Bobst, it waits right across the street, reminding us that however late we’re staying up, it’s not going to bed anytime soon either. On our way back from class, in those terrifying moments when we see the girl we love on a park bench with another boy, it extends a hand of solace and the convenience of two massive stone pillars to hide behind. It connects us with generations of students before who once stood transfixed by its beauty. The same students who, like us, eventually and sadly grew used to it and barely noticed it. But more than that, it connects us with our peers, because at a school defined by the wild differences in our dreams — a diversity of aspirations that span across eighteen different colleges and countless more programs — under the arch, we are all dreamers.