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Standing Between War and Peace - part 2
Triumphal arches of size did not begin to appear in the United States until the late 19th century. One of the earliest designs of note is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, built in Brooklyn at the entrance to Prospect Park. While Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s 1861 plan for Prospect Park Plaza envisioned a simple design that would act as a buffer to the city’s noisy streets, the coming of the Civil War and demands for commemoration brought the two into a collaboration with Stanford White to create a monument for the site. While based on a Roman triumphal arch, it broke with the trends found in European monarchies. Although there were statues of generals, the arch is dedicated to the Defenders of the Union. Completed in 1889, further sculpture was added in 1894, and crowning winged goddess of victory the following year. During ceremonies commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1926, Prospect Park Plaza was renamed Grand Army Plaza. It is interesting to note how much of the arches’ history is intertwined with veterans groups. Although part of the Battle of Long Island was fought here during the American Revolution, this was ignored in favor of honoring Civil War veterans who had much political clout at that time. All monuments tend to represent the values of those who build them more than who they are dedicated to.
Unlike the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Brooklyn’s arch did not serve as a physical portal for troops marching home from war. The two are however are much alike in what they represent. The Arc de Triomphe eventually became the yearly site for Bastille Day celebrations in which the military was honored, while the Soldier and Sailors monument became a site for GAR reunions. Even when soldiers were not returning from war, these arches still functioned as symbolic portals in which military service and peace were both honored.
Brooklyn’s triumphal arch was not the only one constructed in 1889. That year was marked by the centennial celebration of George Washington’s inauguration at Federal Hall, and a number of arches were erected along the parade route. While those across New YorkÕs Fifth Avenue at 23rd and 26th Streets took on a gothic fortress-like appearance, the one designed by Stanford White above Washington Square was based on the Roman style. This triumphal arch was only a temporary structure built with reinforced plaster (staff) and decorated with papier-mache designs. Its popularity however gave White the opportunity to design a more permanent arch in marble at the entrance to Washington Square Park. The Washington Arch was dedicated in 1895, just forty-five years after the old parade ground became a public park.
Although the statues of George Washington were not added until 1916, they greatly help to clarify the meaning of this structure. While a military parade passed under it when dedicated, it did not commemorate a specific military victory allowing it to primarily function as a monument rather than a portal. What cannot be forgotten is the figure it honors who is not so unlike the emperors honored on ancient arches. These statues of Washington placed on the arch are more allegory than portrait. One shows Washington as a general, flanked by Fame and Valor. The other figure is Washington as president, flanked by Justice and Wisdom. Even without troops marching beneath it, the Washington arch reminds us that it is still symbolically functions as a gateway between war and peace.
The Great Triumphal Arch of Washington Square also served as a portal in more subtle ways. The park marked the divide between artists and Italian laborers living in tenements to the south from the more affluent and aristocratic knickerbockers to the north. While the park saw little mingling between classes, there was a cultural dynamic that flowed back and forth even if reluctantly. While the surrounding neighborhood of Greenwich Village was already a haven for writers and intellectuals, this growing dynamic between disparate ideas seemed to propel it into a bohemian community. While the arch can hardly be given credit, it is not impossible to completely discount its symbolic influence. Washington Square and its arch became subject matter for many artists, which shifted its meaning. By redefining it as a symbol of the community, new life was breathed into it.
Once any structure becomes known as a famous landmark, its original meaning is diluted in its newfound fame. New York City has many of these in the form of bridges, buildings, and monuments, all of which can stand in as symbols of the City. During the elaborate Hudson-Fulton Celebrations of 1909 they were nearly all put to use in the festivities. The Washington Arch became just one of these, decorated in strings of colored lights to represent the United States and the Netherlands. By daylight the arch was the terminus of a great military parade that drew in active troops and veterans from across the state and nation. While none of this had anything to do with George Washington, it did not feel out of place because the arch was perceived through a broader spectrum of meanings.
Fame brought attention, and nearly every major publisher of New York postcards captured a view of the Washington Arch. While this only increased its fame, symbolism is a fragile thing. What is meaningful to one generation is forgotten in the next. Very often when a landmark becomes too famous, it begins to be read as a sign rather than a symbol and meaning is lost. Monuments without meaning have no value and their fate is often determined by new forces swirling around them. To Robert Moses, the City’s parks and planning commissioner, the arch was nothing more than an obstruction that blocked his ambitions. There had always been some traffic flowing under the arch, but in 1952 he planned to isolate it by building a major extension of Fifth Avenue around it, a move that would also destroy the park as a public gathering place. There was enough public backlash to defeat him in a six year long court battle, and all vehicles were banned from the park by 1963. All public monuments owe their survival to the public’s interest in them, which often requires their original meaning to be repurposed. It wasnÕt love for George Washington that saved the arch; it was the love for Greenwich Village.
The end of the Spanish-American war brought revelry to the streets of New York in 1898, but the main celebration was scheduled for the following year. There would be a naval review in the Hudson River followed by a long parade. Charles R. Lamb was called upon to design a temporary triumphal arch across Fifth Avenue where it meets up with Broadway at Madison Square. While the arch was envisioned as a naval memorial and decorated with tributes to the many victories of the US Navy, all focus was on the hero of the day, Admiral George Dewey, fresh from his victory at the Battle of Manilla Bay. This would be the first American triumphal arch to see actual participants returning from war, and the crowds in the streets were ecstatic. The symbolic meaning of the arch seems to have been lost on Admiral Dewey who joined the reviewing stand before passing under it. While this mistake did not go unnoticed by others, it still was a sign of the general decline of symbolism within society. A triumphal arch might still represent victory but it was not necessarily recognized as a portal.
The Dewy Arch was a fairly ambitions project considering it was only a temporary structure. It was topped with an unusual quadriga that parted from tradition by having the chariot replaced by a ship pulled by four seahorses. A long colonnade was also added alongside the street. Perhaps its most unique feature was its electric lighting that illuminated the structure at night. Unlike previous arches, it was the first to be built after the introduction of Private Mailing Cards, and many publishers captured it as well as the victory celebrations.
Despite its close resemblance to the Titus Arch in Rome, the Dewey Arch was very much a product of its time. While it received great reviews, enthusiasm for the arch could not be sustained in busy New York once the extravagant festivities were over. Plans were made to replace its staff construction with marble, but there was no emperor to order it done. The temporary arch was paid for by subscription, and additional funds could not be raised for a more permanent structure. This was a new dynamic inherent in democracies. The Washington arch, built only a decade earlier found funding because there was consensus around its meaning. The Spanish-American War was unpopular, and many of those who came out to the parade were probably celebrating its quick end as much as victory. The arch had served its purpose, and few wanted to be reminded of the controversial conflict on a daily basis. Though its likeness was picked up on a variety of cards, it was left to deteriorate and was finally torn down in 1901 without a replacement being built.
Smaller memorial gates and arches were built across the country for many years. Although these do not have the stature of the triumphal arch, they all borrow the symbolism of the portal. They are more likely to honor the sacrifice required by war than a specific victory. Names of those who died in service to the nation are often placed on them. Rarely are they positioned over roads for they were never intended to be part of victory celebrations. They are often found in public parks where their meaning can be absorbed in quiet contemplation. Though usually built through private funds raised through veteran organizations, they serve as civic monuments and provided a focal point for community gatherings and remembrances. Even without national recognition, many of these small monuments appeared on postcards produced by local publishers who recognized their significance to a community.
After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, the streets of New York like many streets elsewhere filled with jubilation. World War One had been hard fought with great cost. Many of its participants thought it would never end but exhaustion took its toll. While great ceremonies needed to be organized to celebrate its end, public rejoicing could not be contained for that long. Troops fighting in France were the first to witness these spontaneous outbursts. Makeshift banners were often extended above roads to greet marching troops. While banners may seem so simple not to require precedent, few things really are. They did not need to take on the form of an arch to be understood as a portal because the tradition of the triumphal arch was already well established. Many of these paid special tribute to American soldiers who were largely seen as the saviors of France by ordinary people despite political differences between the two nations. Similar expressions of affection began being placed on numerous French postcards as soon as the first American troops began to arrive.
More substantial arches began to be constructed in France as early as November 1918, though they were largely simple wood frames covered with leafy garlands and what flowers the season allowed. Many of these appear as real photo postcards because they were quicker to produce and could be sold as souvenirs when spirits were still running high. Although these victory arches might truly represent the spontaneous actions taken in small towns, their numbers raise suspicions considering that most seem to have risen within Alsace and Lorraine. The re-conquest of these two Provinces had been a major component of French propaganda, and entering armies had to be perceived as welcome liberators. In actuality, the arrival of French troops was met with some apprehension as most natives of the region fought for Germany and now their loyalty to France was questioned.
The German card above posted in early December 1918 tries to make the best out of a bad situation. Although the troops pictured are not returning home in victory, they are still returning with honor from a battle well fought. More important than victory is the reunification of soldiers with their homeland and families. While the gate pictured cannot be considered a true victory arch due to the outcome of the conflict, it still serves its primary mission as a portal between war and peace.
Once the Paris Peace talks concluded and a peace treaty signed in June 1919, more celebrations were organized for the following month and many temporary arches sprung up all over France. Most of these festivities took place on Bastille Day that marks the start of the French Revolution and is the most important holiday in France. There is some irony in that an architectural form that sprung up to honor the feats of emperors was now harnessed on a day celebrating the downfall of monarchs.
The largest Bastille Day celebration of 1919 took place in Paris, though it was only designated as a victory parade so that all the Allies participating would not have to maneuver through its political associations. Military parades had accompanied Bastille Day celebrations since 1880 though this was the first one held on the Champs-lys’es. While the carved narratives on old Roman arches were often altered to suit the needs of the current emperor, the Arc de Triomphe was dedicated to the soldiers of France and suited this new occasion as is. Even though its symbolism could be recycled, a greater effort needed to be made to show respect for the fallen. A monumental Cenotaph was then erected in front of the arch. This would only be a temporary structure to serve the needs of the day while the arch would remain as a permanent tribute for all of France’s dead and those to come.
Many postcards depicting elaborate celebrations beneath triumphal arches have to be examined carefully to understand their true purpose. Some of these were published in the early years of the war as propaganda that insinuated certain victory was near. While the French card above is not dated, the marching troops are wearing uniforms that were retired in the early years of the conflict. The flags displayed on the arch only represent the four original Allied nations, another indication that it was probably made in 1914.
The Italian card above is another in which the publication dates are unknown even though it clearly depicts a victory celebration in Rome. There are few clues in the image. While King Victor Emanuel III can be made out riding past a triumphal arch, it is difficult to make out the faces of his accompanying generals that might supply a date. The answer is to be found on the back, which shows this to be a charity card, published to raise money for Italian prisoners held in Austrian camps. This at least tells us it was issued before the warÕs end. Wishful thinking is important to any propaganda effort, and the inclusion of a triumphal arch on a card is an easy way to transmit a symbolic message of hope.
By World War One the triumphal arch had become a universal symbol for victory, which made it a potent ingredient for propaganda. Only so much could be explained on a postcard so it was important that the image it presented was easily understood. While the caption on the card above is in Italian, the message is clear from the image alone. It mocks German ambitions to enter Paris as victors by showing them being led under the Arc de Triomphe as prisoners of war. German publishes also used images of this arch in propaganda by transferring the symbolic victory to their conquering soldiers.
While the First World War was still in progress, there was growing support in France to create a memorial tomb for one of the unknown soldiers who died in defense of the Republic. On the first anniversary of the war, remains from the Verdun battlefield were transferred to Paris with great ceremony and placed within the Pantheon. After a more appropriate burial site was demanded, these remans were then entombed directly under the Arc de Triomphe in 1921 with an eternal flame added two years later. While military parades continued during annual celebrations of Bastille Day, troops now marched around the Arc de Triomphe instead of underneath it. This changed the meaning of the arch, taking it from a portal to memorial. The symbolic value of the individual as soldier had finally trumped the propaganda value found in victory. While German troops posed with the Arc de Triomphe as an ironic symbol of victory after entering Paris in 1940, they also marched around it rather than under it as a universal sign of respect for soldiers regardless of who they fight for. Even if this was done for nothing more than propaganda purposes, it still showed a clear understanding of the power behind its symbolism.
Ever since Roman times, the triumphal arch was meant to have more lasting value than being the mere focal point of victory celebrations. Their continued presence in the public landscape was a constant reminder of these events and the emperor who brought stability to the empire. They served to solidify the legitimacy of rule by creating collective memories that eventually evolve into cultural traditions. These traditions however grew weaker as monarchies fell or when their power was diminished. By the 19th century the growth of tourism was already creating a new way to perceive these monument. Their history might be acknowledged, but when functioning outside of ritual, it is difficult for their meaning to resonate. They become the property of the tourist industry, something that will attract visitors by providing local color. It would not be unreasonable to claim that every surviving triumphal arch was at some point placed on a postcard. While being singled out for reproduction is a demonstration of status, they are also trivialized at the same time by joining millions of attractions all vying for attention. In some ways the trauma of the First World War saved the Arc de Triomphe from becoming just another highly recognizable symbol for Paris.
The large number of soldiers and civilians who owned cameras during World War One has only added to the confusion when trying to understand a postcard’s content. Many real photo postcards of triumphal arches exist without any dates or locations attached to them. While there are often enough clues to tie them to a specific conflict, it tells us nothing about the arch itself. Failure to recognize an arch is an indication of their large numbers, so high that they become generic. Even when they hold unique features, nearly all were based of the ancient arches of Titus or Constantine in Rome. Their familiarity however made their basic symbolism universal. Soldiers could pose with any triumphal arch whether it was related to the conflict they fought in or not and still have it represent their victory.
Although the National Memorial Arch was dedicated in June 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War One, its basic concept was laid down in 1907. Designed by Paul Philippe CretIt in the Roman style, it commemorates the tribulations that General George Washington and his Continental Army faced during the harsh winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. While it is indeed a suitable Revolutionary War monument for Valley Forge Park, the real impetus behind its construction lay in the American Civil War. The turn of the 20th century was a time when many veterans were actively raising monuments on Civil War battlefields, along with revising history to paint the Confederacy in a better light. Some thought that refocusing back on the years of Revolution when we all worked together for a single cause was a way to overcome growing divisiveness and provide a way for the nation to heal. This ideal was even more important when construction actually began on the National Memorial Arch in 1914, the year the Great War started. While Washington is honored and victory commemorated, it stands not so much a triumphal arch as a monument to the soldiers that endured hardship to win a nation’s freedom.
The Gold Star Arch built in Chicago’s Grant Park looks like a victory monument, but it was constructed in 1918 before the war ended. While Gold Star refers to the gold stars awarded to mothers of American servicemen who died in the conflict, the arch was funded by organized labor that dedicated it to all the Allied dead. It represents the uneasily balance between the Socialist movement that attracted much support for its anti-war stance and the Wilson administration that jailed its most outspoken leaders. Once the United States entered the war, dissent from official policies became a crime. This monument was a way of showing support for fellow international workers who were doing the bulk of fighting and dying without throwing their weight behind the war effort. Although it became a rallying point for labor marches rather than military parades, it still demonstrates the growing tendency of these arches to represent ordinary people through the context of war.
There was also a flurry of arch construction in the United States after the war. These were temporary structures, built in nearly every major city. The Victory Arch in Newport News, Virginia was built in 1919 at a major disembarking point for troops retuning from France. They would march off their troop transports and pass directly under the arch in victory parades. It is an example of how the symbolism behind these structures was transferred from representing the power of the state to the importance of the citizen soldier. While the wooden framed stucco arch was only meant to stand two years, it held so much meaning to the community that it was left standing. Despite continual maintenance, it began to crumble, and in 1962 it was replaced by a permanent arch.
New York City constructed its own Victory Arch at the same 25th Street site where the Dewey Arch once stood. The new design by Thomas Hastings, was much larger and not quite finished when the men of the 27th Division, fresh from the battlefields of France marched under it in March 1919. Though topped with a chariot representing the Triumph of Democracy, much of the iconography on the columns lining the street reflected the battles fought and the modern military equipment used to fight them.
The victory parade up Fifth Avenue was perhaps the largest celebration the City has ever seen. Despite the attendance, there was little appetite for a more permanent replacement, and once all the hoopla died down, the arch was dubbed the Alter of Extravagance. As infighting broke out among City officials over a permanent replacement, publishers continued to place images of the arch on their view-cards as if it were just another one of the City’s many tourist attractions. That was a sign of its fate to come. Once the public lost interest, there was no one to spur city officials into action. There was still support for a memorial, just not an expensive undertaking. After the Victory Arch was torn down in 1920, an Eternal Light Flagstaff, also designed by Thomas Hastings was put up in Madison Square Park at 24th Street. Dedicated on Armistice Day 1924, it remains the terminus of New York’s annual Veterans Day Parade.
While the Victory Arch was the focal point of celebrations, other decorative elements along with a massive number of flags lined the parade route between Washington Square and 110th Street. Most impressive was the Arch of Jewels, built across Fifth Avenue at 60th street. Here a delicate curtain was supported by two 80-foot plaster towers toped with stars made of sparkling glass prisms. When illuminated at night by colored searchlights, they put on a memorable show. The public at this time was more impressed with advances in technology than adherence to classical form. This was a hint of things to come. Even though technology allowed the triumphal arch to take on new forms it slowly ate away at the symbolism behind it. As meaning decreased, so did the need for these types of monuments. Temporary arches were rarely replaced and new arches rarely built. The exception to this rule seems to be in nations where dictators are always looking for new ways to honor themselves. Perhaps in this way we have come full circle.
Memorials to the dead have their own history, but it is not so different from that of the triumphal arch that honors the victors. Both types of monuments are designed to help impart a collective memory into a culture, and sustain it over time. They are collection points for shared values, and it is in the recognition of shared values that a society is formed. The oldest messages on arches were imposed from above, to instruct the masses on the power of the state. As the structure of power has changed, so have our monuments and the impetus to build them. Monuments have no purpose if there is no consensus of meaning, which is growing increasingly more difficult to attain. While collective grief over the fallen is still enough to generate a memorial, controversial wars tend to pass unrecognized. While all seemed happy to see the Great War come to an end, it was not the war to end all wars as envisioned and the bitter taste still resides in many mouths. Perhaps we can do better than turn our cities into hollow acropolises. Too many bones still lie unclaimed on battlefields for the very idea of victory to exist untainted.
Postscript: Armistice day has been a public holiday in France with solemn ceremonies held every year at the Arc de Triomphe. In 2018 these ceremonies were attended by world leaders to mark the hundredth anniversary to the end of the Great War. While this arch might live on as a monument to those who died in war, it has taken on additional meaning as a symbol of the state. Only a few weeks later the streets of Paris began to fill with anti-austerity protesters known as the Yellow Jackets, and the Arc de Triomphe became the focal point of their anti-government graffiti. It is precisely because the arch is held sacred that it was defaced; and a battle has since ensued between protesters and officials over who will control its meaning. While using the arch as a background for the painting of political slogans might seem disrespectful to the dead, it should be remembered that the protesters are largely the dependents of those called to fight and they are rebelling against the same protected elites that send them off to war. Constantine’s legions may march under his arch but iis message is dictated by the Emperor.
Standing Between War and Peace - part 1