Victory Arch – the Last Temporary Triumphal Arch in Madison Square

Manhattan: 5th Avenue - 25th Street
Manhattan: 5th Avenue – 25th Street, 1919 Underhill, Irving (d. 1960) (Photographer) Source: NYPL Digital Collections

The Victory Arch was located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway between 24th and 25th streets and stood there from 1918 to 1920.

Even though World War I did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, the combat had stopped on November 11, 1918, when the Allies and Germany signed the armistice according to which Germany had formally surrendered.

As the troops returned home by the thousands, city officials came up with an idea of celebrating the homecoming with a triumphal arch which would later be transformed into a permanent Great War memorial.

Two decades after the Dewey Arch, Madison Square was once again selected as a location for the structure, with Thomas Hastings chosen as its principal designer. The architect based his design on a Roman example – the Arch of Constantine in Rome. An elaborate sculptural composition atop the arch included a chariot with symbolic figures representing Wisdom, Power, Justice, and Peace alongside it. The work proceeded over the winter while troops continued their return, with the first homecoming parade scheduled for March 25th. The parade was to proceed from the Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to 110th Street. More parades followed as more divisions arrived, but none overshadowed the scale of the March 25 parade, which according to newspapers was the largest gathering in New York City up to that time. The parading crowd turned rowdy, with the most altercations reportedly happening right around the Victory Arch.

The crowd near the Victory Arch
The crowd near the Victory Arch as the 27th Division marched up Fifth Avenue. This photograph is not from a glass stereoview. Note the soldiers marching four by four, through the narrow lane cleared by the police. Source: Green-Wood, NYC’s Parade at the End of World War I

As the celebrations and parades came to a close, so did the idea of turning the arch into a permanent war memorial. During construction there appeared a strong interest in a Great War memorial for New York City but as the 1920s progressed it waned. The idea was deemed unnecessary, pompous, and wasteful. Fiorello LaGuardia, the future mayor of New York City, was one of the strongest voices against the monument, considering it indulgent and extravagant.

Victory Arch and Flatiron Bldg.
Victory Arch and Flatiron Bldg., c1919. Irving Underhill. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

To the contemporary eye, it seems almost shocking that all this effort was channeled into a temporary edifice that was torn down as quickly as it came up. It is perhaps surprising, but also very telling of New York’s ability to create, let go, and move on.

Victory Arch, Madison Square and 25th St., New York City
Victory Arch, Madison Square and 25th St., New York City Creator(s): Underhill, Irving, -1960, photographer Date Created/Published: c1919 May 31.

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