Why Henry James Hated the Washington Square Park Arch

Henry James (1843-1916) used Washington Square as the name of arguably his most well-known novel. The book, published in 1881, was also one of his least favorite. James grew up at 2 Washington Place and was quite familiar with the surrounding neighborhood.

The author moved to Europe for a spell and he was there when the the official dedication ceremony for the Washington Square Park Arch took place on May 4th, 1895. James returned to the Village in the early 1900s to find the new Arch erected; his childhood home demolished. Both occurrences were sources of great displeasure to him.

Henry James Returned from Europe to Find His Childhood Home Demolished by NYU

Walking off the Big Apple recalled this “uneasy homecoming.” James “was really ticked off at NYU when the university tore down his boyhood home.” He felt “the effect … was of having been amputated of half my history.” James observed “that with the destruction of his house, a commemorative tablet [plaque] 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.'”

Sadly, since that time, we’ve seen a lot of Greenwich Village’s destruction by NYU.

No Love for the Arch

James described the Arch, which was modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, 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.”

Pete Hamill, in his book, Downtown: My Manhattan, wrote 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.

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Perhaps the loss of his childhood home and the advent of the Arch pushed the writer across the sea. It may have all been too much for Henry James. He died one year later.

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The portrait of Henry James above is by John Singer Sargent.

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