Why did Henry James hate the Washington Square Arch? Meanwhile, the Arch officially turns 117

Washington Memorial Arch Original Plans

Writer Henry James used Washington Square as the name (and setting) for for one of his well known novels published in 1881; it was also one of his least favorite of ones he’d written. James grew up nearby on Washington Place and his grandmother lived at 18 Washington Square North (now part of 2 Fifth Avenue). He was in Europe in the late 1890s when the Arch was built.

The official dedication ceremony and unveiling of the Arch took place on May 4th, 1895. This makes the Arch now 117 years old! Gothamist marked the Anniversary with photos from the history of the Arch taken from the Municipal Archives (thanks Gothamist!).

In Pete Hamill’s Downtown: My Manhattan, he writes that Henry James “hated” the Arch and surmises that the new “bohemia” taking place in the area might have been the reason that in 1915 the writer became “a British subject.” But I wonder if it was more the loss of his childhood home which he did not take well and perhaps the advent of the Arch a bit too that pushed him in that direction. (James died one year later.)

Henry James returned to the Washington Square area in the early 1900s to find the new Arch erected and his childhood home demolished (by NYU … some things don’t change?). Both occurrences were seemingly sources of great displeasure for him. James described the Arch as “the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square–lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state.”

Walking off the Big Apple wrote about Henry James’ Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square, recounting his reaction upon finding these changes upon his return:

Henry James (1843-1916) … was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home. During the 1890s, while James was living in Europe, the school pulled down its older main building on the east side of Washington Square to make way for new buildings. In “New York Revisited,” James describes his return to the city in 1904 after a long absence, and though he comes across many familiar sights, he’s startled by the loss of his home on Washington Place. 

James continues by observing that with the destruction of his house, a commemorative tablet about his life would not be placed on its wall; “the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable.”

Tablet equals plaque I believe.

* Previously at WSP Blog: History of the Washington Square Arch and “Exitus Acta Probat”

Photo: NYC Municipal Archives

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