Arch Conspirators Declared “Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square” Atop Arch 106 Years Ago Today

Arch Conspirators by John Sloan

Greenwich Village History: “Free From Mainstream Convention” – Has This Spirited Notion Come and Gone?

Up until recently, I felt in many ways Washington Square Park remained informed by the free spirited “Arch Conspirators”‘ takeover of the Arch in 1917. However, I don’t know if that is so anymore. There remains 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, made their way to the top and threw a party – one with a mission.

Calling themselves the “Arch Conspirators,” 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.

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. …

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 Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square was born.

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.

Present Day Wealthy Neighbors Would in No Way Celebrate this Moment

It’s ironic to me that Washington Square Park private Conservancy – again, this organization does not run or manage this public park – recently sent out an email alert alluding to (celebrating) this moment in the park’s history. As if its socialite founders with addresses on nearby Fifth Avenue would not have been the first ones to condemn this action, lock the Arch door and call the police to guard it. Please.

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

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