In 1806, Napoleon envisioned creating a triumphal arch as an ode to his own military prowess. Thirty years later, the Arc de Triomphe was completed under King Louis-Philippe to honor the French army, and it remains one of Paris’ most popular tourist attractions.
The last block of Carrara marble was slipped into place in the Marble Arch in London in 1833 to celebrate the British victory in the Napoleonic Wars and to welcome visitors to Buckingham Palace. Today, tourists can walk under its engraved angels as they enter Hyde Park.
The Arch of Constantine, one of the earliest examples of the Roman invention that started this whole trend, was built in the year 315 to honor Emperor Constantine and the battle in which he overthrew his rival Maxentius. Visitors to the Colosseum can wander past it today, just a little worse for its 1700 years of wear.
But one triumphal monument that remains only a phantom is the Victory Arch in Madison Square Park.
New York City had big dreams of pomp and circumstance to welcome returning soldiers home from World War I. But when it came to turning their vision into a reality, they chose instant gratification—relatively speaking—over historical permanence.
When the architectural scheme was concocted by Mayor John F. Hylan, the city knew that their victory memorial would have to be temporary. There were only a few short months in which to prepare for the homecoming festivities that were to take place throughout 1919 starting in March.
They opted to erect a wood and plaster version—still decked out in all the symbolic sculptures and scrolls and inspirational quotations that triumphal arches are known for—and to replace it with a more permanent version at some undetermined point in the future.
But no Victory Arch stands in Madison Square Park today. Not only that, it was the fourth—and last—grand arch built and then torn down in that very same park over the span of several decades. The Romans built their celebratory structures to last. The denizens of Flatiron, it seems, preferred to live in the moment.
Before World War I became a nightmare shared by the world, three separate triumphal arches had gone up and come down in our Manhattan park in question. In 1889, a pair of fairly simplistic arches were built—one on the north side of the park, the other on the south—for city-wide celebrations to honor the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. They disappeared after the festivities ended.
In 1899, the city decided to build a more elaborate arch in the park for the grand return of Admiral George Dewey who had been victorious at the Battle of Manila Bay the previous year during the Spanish-American War.
In what would become a case of déjà vu, the city hastily erected a temporary arch with the intention for a more permanent memorial to take its place. But by the end of the next year, the good citizens of New York had forgotten their love of Admiral Dewey and pulled the arch down with no plans to replace it.
Not all New York City monuments fared as badly as those erected in Madison Square Park.
The Washington Square Park Arch is an iconic feature of the city’s landscape and it was the sole survivor of the arches dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. (It was also a successful case of a temporary monument actually becoming permanent, in this case with the help of renowned architect Stanford White.)
The Soldiers and Sailors Arch in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn that was built to commemorate Union soldiers who fought during the Civil War still welcomes day-trippers to Prospect Park.
But despite the fact that these two had stood as examples of memorial arches turned iconic New York City attractions for several decades, Hylan and his crew of advisers could only concern themselves with what they needed immediately to stage impressive “welcome home” parties.
The parade routes were being planned and, naturally, the soldiers must pass beneath a magnificent arch designed specifically to recognize their feats of honor. That arch would have to be fully realized within just a few months.
So, at the end of 1918, Mayor Hylan assembled his cumbersomely named Executive Committee of the Mayor’s Committee of Welcome to Homecoming Troops.
From the beginning, the local artists were a pain in the sides of the committee members. At the end of November 1918, a rough sketch of the proposed arch was released to the public.
Immediately artists, particularly members from the National Sculpture Society, rebelled at what they saw as an inferior design. It was a particularly awkward situation when they realized that the design they so objected to was made by Paul Bartlett, their own president of the National Sculpture Society.
“In theory, said these artists, the idea for a Victory Arch is one of the very best little ideas ever promulgated in these parts. In fact, it was such a good idea, they declared, that they themselves originated it months ago,” The New York Tribune reported with more than a heavy dose of sarcasm.
But the drawing was completely unacceptable, the artists declared amid what one must imagine were audible groans of exasperation from committee members.
The artists were finally placated with a design they accepted (it probably didn’t hurt that many of them were hired to contribute), and the arch of wood and plaster was rushed into construction.
Overall, the temporary memorial cost $80,000 to build (nearly $1 million today). The structure was designed by Thomas Hastings, who had been responsible for the New York Public Library nearly two decades earlier, and it took the Arch of Constantine as its model.
The triple arch design was topped by a sculpture of a chariot pulled by six horses that was meant to symbolize the Triumph of Democracy. The inside pillars of the arch were engraved with the names of each state and the year they joined the union, while the names of every important battle in World War I were carved onto the outside pillars.
Perhaps the most dramatic sculptural elements were displayed on pillars that stood to the south and to the sides of the main arch.
Conceived by Paul Chalfin, the three freestanding pillars in front bore the symbols of war, including plaster representations of “every conceivable form of modern warfare as used by our victorious Allies.” In an interesting twist on the usual fare of stately angels, off to the side were another set of four pillars, each garnished with one replica of an important technology of the war: an airplane, a cannon, a tank, or a gas generator.
In a sign of the braggadocio that characterizes so much of the coverage of feats at this time, the Evening World reported on March 5, “The great temporary Victory Arch, the most remarkable work of its kind ever attempted, will be completed by the end of this week.”
They were slightly off in their predictions; the arch was only “nearly complete” the morning of its debut on March 25, 1919, when the first parade in honor of the 27th Division began. The itinerary called for Sergeant Reider Waller to cut a ribbon tied across the arch at 10:20 a.m. to symbolize “the victorious return of the troops to their native land.”
To say this parade was a success would be an understatement. It was a party the likes of which Manhattan had never seen before and maybe not since. It was estimated that over three million people came out to cheer on the 27th Division as they marched from Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to 110th Street.
They showered the soldiers with confetti and cigarettes and grew so rowdy in their celebrations that the police struggled to maintain order. The New York Times reported that “great whirlpools of men and women surged about the Victory Arch at Madison Square.”
This was just the first of several parades scheduled to take place throughout the year, but law enforcement had learned their lesson. When the city again gathered on May 6, this time to fête the 77th Regiment, the police cordoned off Madison Square Park so that the crowds were confined to the side streets where they could barely see a thing.
“The police at Madison Square enjoyed the parade immensely. They were the only ones there who could see it,” the Evening World reported. “Thousands of spectators were held back on Madison Avenue and the great triumphal arch, where the folks at home were to gather and throw their enthusiasm around the massive monument, looked like a lone lighthouse. The marching fighters must have thought as they approached and passed through the arch that it was haunted or hoodooed and the police herded around it to protect spectators from it.”
Despite the fuddy-duddies in black, the celebrations in 1919 were a huge success, though not everyone appreciated their charms.
In October of that year, the Republican candidate to become president of the Board of Aldermen, Fiorello LaGuardia criticized Hylan’s handling of the homecoming ceremonies for what he deemed “an extravagant waste of the people’s money.” LaGuardia renamed the Victory Arch the “Altar of Extravagance.”
The name didn’t catch on, but neither did the memorial. After the parades died down, a half-hearted effort was made to come up with a plan for a more permanent arch.
But, in the end, it was killed by the most American of problems—bureaucratic in-fighting over who should be hired to handle the project and what exactly the memorial should symbolize.
The Victory Arch was torn down in the summer of 1920 without a replacement.
Two decades later, the sons of New York would again be called to war.