In many ways, more recent Washington Square Park remains informed by the famous bohemian, free spirited “Arch Conspirators”‘ takeover of the Arch in 1917. Some may not be aware of what transpired then. Yet there still exists a battle between opposing forces on the ground and behind-the-scenes over how the park is governed and what degree of “unconventionality” is allowed.
On January 23, 1917, six artists, among them, John Sloan, Marcel Duchamp, and Gertrude Drick, sneaked through an unguarded door of the Washington Square Arch, making their way to the top and threw a party – one with a mission.
Calling themselves the “Arch Conspirators,” once atop the Arch, the artists proclaimed their declaration for “The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square” with the intent of having a neighborhood free from mainstream convention.
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.
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.
The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square was born.
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.
Can Washington Square Park 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