Why Henry James “Hated” the Washington Square Arch Which Turns 121 Today

Washington Memorial Arch Original Plans
Washington Memorial Arch Original Plans

Writer Henry James used Washington Square as the name and setting for probably his most wellknown novel published in 1881; it was also one of his least favorite books he’d written. James grew up nearby at 2 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 121 years old! Gothamist marked the 117th Anniversary with photos from the history of the Arch taken from the Municipal Archives. (Thanks, Gothamist!)

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 recalled Henry James’ Uneasy Homecoming to Washington Square, recounting his reaction (“really ticked off at NYU”) finding these dramatic 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.”

(Note: Tablet equals plaque.)

In Pete Hamill’s Downtown: My Manhattan, he states that Henry James “hated” the Arch and surmises that the new “bohemia” taking place in the area might have been the reason that the noted writer became “a British subject” in 1915.

But I have to wonder if the loss of his childhood home which James did not take well and the advent of the Arch pushed him across the sea. It may have all been too much for Henry James. He died one year later.

* * *
Previously at WSP Blog:

History of the Washington Square Arch and “Exitus Acta Probat”

Photo: NYC Municipal Archives

This is an edited, recycled post originally published May 8, 2012.

Spread the love

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: