99 Years Ago Today: Arch Conspirators Declare “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square”

Arch Conspirators John Sloan
Arch Conspirators by John Sloan

No blizzard on that day! On January 23, 1917, 6 artists, including John Sloan, Marcel Duchamp, and Gertrude Drick, made their way into the Washington Square Arch and threw a party, but one with a mission. They called themselves the “Arch Conspirators” and, once atop the Arch, proclaimed their declaration for “The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.”

Some more details of that winter night which perhaps has shaped the spirit of the park to this day:

Gertrude Drick first conceived of her plan to claim Greenwich Village’s independence when she noticed a discrete door on the West pier of the Washington Square Arch. And most significantly, the door was often unattended due to the resident policeman’s propensity to abandon his station for hours at a time. Drick, an artist and poet, had come to Greenwich Village from Texas to study under painter John Sloan. She had gained notoriety in the Village under the self-imposed nickname ‘Woe’, so that when asked her name she would respond ‘Woe is me.’ She was also a known prankster, and after seeing the door approached Sloan with a plan to hold a mock revolution, an opportunity to recapture Washington Square Park in the name of bohemian unconventionality.

Drick and Sloan recruited their fellow bohemians: the actors Forrest Mann, Charles Ellis, and Betty Turner, and the artist Marcel Duchamp to join their rebellion. Duchamp was no stranger to controversy, his painting Nude Descending a Staircase scandalized the art community when displayed at the Armory Show in 1913 because of its total abandonment of realist principles. Together, these six revolutionaries plotted their secession from the Union. …

After dark on January 23, 1917, Drick and friends met on lower Fifth Avenue. With no sign of the meandering police officer, they opened the door, climbed up the spiral staircase, pushed open the trap door, and emerged on the top of Washington Square Arch. The bohemians came armed with food, plenty of liquor, hot water bottles for warmth, Chinese lanterns, red balloons, toy pistols, and of course, the Declaration of Independence of the Greenwich Republic, thought to have been written by Duchamp. The conspirators sat around a small fire and recited verses of poetry while enjoying a picnic. Finally, Drick thought it was time to read aloud their Declaration of Independence. The document itself contained a mockingly high usage of the word ‘whereas,’ which was repeated again and again. … Once their declaration was declared the balloons were released into the night, the cap guns shot off, and more wine was drunk in celebration. The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square was born.

As morning crept up, and the group was beginning to disband, Sloan announced that they would leave the arch, “to ply our various callings till such time as the demands of the state again might become imperative.” It seems Sloan expected to be able to return to their hideout. The next day, all that remained of their late night mischief were several red balloons, but within a day almost “everyone south of 14th street knew of their status as a liberated community,” and the wealthier inhabitants of Washington Square North found little humor in the “bohemian tomfoolery.”

Sloan commemorated the event in his now famous etching, Arch Conspirators, depicting all six rebels reveling in their moment on top of the arch while Fifth Avenue continues to function like normal down below.

Source: Creating Digital History

Wealthy neighbors in the area were not amused, and, after the ebullient declaration, the door to the Arch was firmly secured.

Could Washington Square Park ever be “recaptured (again) in the name of bohemian unconventionality?” Or have those days come and gone?

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Etching, Arch Conspirators by John Sloan; from left to right: Frederick Ellis, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude S. Drick, Allen Russell Mann, Betty Turner, and John Sloan

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