“Resolved, Subject to the approval of the Art Commission, as provided in section 637 of the Charter of Greater New York, that the triangular plot east of Morningside Park and south of One Hundred and Fourteenth street, at the junction of Manhattan and Morningside avenues, be designated as the site for the Lafayette-Washington Monument, tendered to The City of New York by Charles B. Rouss.”
—from the minutes of the June 30, 1898 meeting of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Parks
Bound by West 114th Street, Manhattan and Morningside Avenues in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, Lafayette Square is named in honor of the French statesman and military leader, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Montier Lafayette (1757–1834). Using its power of eminent domain the City of New York acquired this space and the land used to create nearby Morningside Park on July 28, 1870. The Marquis de Lafayette is remembered for his role in the American War for Independence. From the moment he heard of the American cause he was sympathetic to it; he aided the colonists through diplomatic efforts as well as military leadership. The French nobleman became a favorite of General George Washington, who named him Major General of the Continental Army in 1777.
The following year the Marquis returned to France when the formal agreement between France and the United States formalized their alliance against Great Britain. In France he took an active roll lobbying in favor of increased military and financial aid for the Colonies. In 1780 Marquis de Lafayette returned to fight for the colonists’ cause; he served courageously in the Virginia campaign, which led to the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) on October 19th 1781 at Yorktown, and the end to the war.
French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) is remembered for designing “Liberty Enlightening the World,” more commonly known as the Statue of Liberty which faces the hills of Brooklyn from New York Harbor. Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) was the publisher of the New York World, which became the newspaper with the largest daily circulation, 600,000 copies, in the country; he greatly admired Monsieur Bartholdi’s best-known work of art. Mr. Pulitzer commissioned the sculptor to create another statue; he wanted the artwork to personify the bond between France and the United States. Choosing a subject to fit the theme was easy.
The best-known historic figures who embodied the theme and were well-known in each country were George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Completed in 1890, “Washington Greeting Lafayette” was exhibited at the Champs Elysées Salon of 1892 and later that same year at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The sculpture shows General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette shaking hands against a backdrop of the French and American flags. The two men were so close that the Marquis would name his son and heir, Georges Washington de Lafayette.
“A more serious objection to the group is the mistake M. Bartholdi has made in the relative size of the two heroes of the Revolution. Washington was a man of exceptional height that majesty of deportment, which every one who saw him noted as a chief characteristic was not merely the result of his large and commanding mind, but was reinforced by the bigness of his physical make-up. Americans are good-humored, but they will not care to allow even so notable a sculptor as M. Bartholdi an artist’s license in this respect, because it violates too obviously the actual facts.”
—from a New York Times critique of “Washington Greeting Lafayette” when the sculpture was exhibited at the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago
It is disappointing that the critic at the New York Times could not appreciate the artistic license that Monsieur Bartholdi took to create a more symmetric work of art by evening out the figures’ height. Despite its bad press the bronze found an appropriate home.
Mr. Pulitzer offered the bronze sculpture to the City of Paris, which accepted it. On December 1st 1895, the figural grouping was unveiled at Place des États-Unis in the 16th Arrondissement. A number of politicians, diplomats, Monsieur Bartholdi himself, and a member of the Lafayette family attended the dedication ceremony.
Charles Baltzell Rouss (1836–1902) was a Southerner from Winchester, Virginia, where he had a thriving mercantile business. The Civil War left his spirit trampled and his bank balance in the red. He moved to New York, where he continued in the retail trade he knew, but not before he sent time in the city’s debtor’s prison. He opened a department store at Nos. 549-555 Broadway; the store spanned the width of the block through to Mercer Street. Because of his store’s location and because he was fascinated by the thoroughfare, Mr. Rouss changed his middle name to Broadway, and had his full new name, “Charles Broadway Rouss” chiseled into the marble entablature above the store’s entry doors.
Mr. Rouss purchased a replica of Monsieur Bartholdi’s bronze, and donated it to New York City, which graciously accepted the gift. The reason for Mr. Rouss’ generosity is not known. However, it was not as a memorial to his son, as some account claim. His son was deceased but survived his father and carried on the family business.
At an overall height of 20’2″, a width of 15′, and a depth of 10’6″ the bronze grouping depicting Washington and his esteemed Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette, wearing colonial uniforms, was sculpted in Paris. It is a second casting after the original. The marble from which the pedestal is made came from Hauteville, France. This same region supplied marble for New York’s Empire State Building at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. Dedicated on April 19, 1900 the bronze plaque’s inscription at the front of the pedestal reads, LAFAYETTE WASHINGTON / PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF NEW YORK / BY / CHARLES B ROUSS / APRIL NINETEENTH NINETEEN HUNDRED
“The group has been erected in a position which displays it in a more conspicuous manner than the majority of the public statues of the city.”
—The New York Times in 1900 had more positive things to say about the statue and its placement in its hometown
Seen behind “Washington Greeting Lafayette” is a gigantic arch over a doorway facing the back of the monument and Lafayette Square, which is shaded by large sycamore trees. This belongs to The Monterey, a handsome six-story, apartment building of orange brick designed by Thomas O. Speir in 1891, occupying an entire block. In 1892 an New York Times advertisement for the Monterey announced, “Passenger elevator all night. Hot Water. Roof walk.”
Despite its prominence in the square, “Washington Greeting Lafayette” is mostly forgotten because it is well off the beaten path.
Read our other articles about George Washington
A Birthday Tribute to George Washington
George Washington: the Ultimate Veteran
George Washington as Roman Emperor
Library Portraits of George Washington
George Washington’s First Inauguration
And about the Marquis de Lafayette
The Marquis de Lafayette in Union Square
Our Downtown Manhattan Walking Tour will take you where the first president of the U.S. was sworn in. And our Five Squares and a Circle Tour includes Union Square where Lafayette and Washington, the 18th-century comrades-in-arms, stand separately, not side-by-side as they are shown in these photos. Take the Tour; Know More!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2018