History of the Washington Square Arch & "Exitus Acta Probat"

* Recycled entry for George Washington’s Birthday *

On each side of the famous Washington Square Arch stands George Washington in two distinct poses at its pedestal: Washington At War on the East side and Washington At Peace on the West. The Arch was designed by noted period architect Stanford White (1853-1906).

Originally built in wood for the Centennial of Washington’s inauguration in 1889, it stood half a block away. It was then commissioned in marble and completed in its current location in the early 1890’s.

Of the Washington At War statue, Emily Kies Folpe, in her book, “It Happened on Washington Square,” wrote that the sculptor, Herman A. Mac Neil, wanted the statue “to appear alert and intent, as if watching the maneuvers of his army.” Looking on are the figures of Fame and Valor.

Pictured above is Washington At Peace (A. Stirling Calder) with figures of Wisdom and Justice behind him. Wisdom stands there as “the modern Athena” – Greek goddess of wisdom. Folpe writes, “Justice, draped and crowned, holding a balanced set of scales with one hand and an open book in the other. The pages of the book are inscribed with the words Exitus acta probat.’ ”

Exitus acta probat is taken from the George Washington Family Coat of Arms. It is Latin and I’ve come across various ways of interpreting it, all similar but slight variations. The basic translation is: the outcome justifies the deed.

It’s the pairing of that statement with the figure of Justice that puzzles me. I like to think at Washington Square Park that ultimately there will be some kind of ‘Justice’ in the outcome of the redesign of the Park. Is there some missing deed?

Of course, Stanford White’s “outcome” was a little bit jarring. He was shot on the roof of the Madison Square Garden building, the second incarnation of the building (no longer there) which he also designed, by the husband of an ex-lover.

** Recently, a commenter named Hugh wrote in clarifying with the following information:

The outcome justifying the deed that Washington was referring to was the Revolutionary war. No one wanted war then, not only was it near suicide for all who opposed the English, but also, war causes a lot of death which is also something that he didn’t want, however, if the end result was freedom and liberty, then a horrible deed such as war is in fact justified. It shows that Washington believed that unless the outcome is justified, then the deed should not be done.

Piece originally published April 3, 2008; this is an edited version.