Since their first appearance thousands of years ago, arches have enabled us to build different types of buildings and to span rivers and gorges. When joined together, they form wonderful arcades under which one can stroll regardless of unseasonal or unkind weather. And sometimes they’re just stand-alone monuments with historical and symbolic significance. Of the latter, these are my favorites.
#1 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch (Brooklyn, New York)
As the nucleus of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, a tremendous, heavily used traffic oval with entrances to both Prospect Park and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch honors those who fought on the side of the Union during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Chosen from 36 different submitted designs, this triumphal memorial arch boasts a fine pedigree of architectural and historical heavyweights: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, along with Stanford White, built it; William Tecumseh Sherman spoke at the 1889 cornerstone-laying ceremony; and President Grover Cleveland led the unveiling in 1892.
The granite and brick arch, at 80’ in both height and width, with an archway measuring 53’ tall and 30’ wide, pays homage to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe (see below), but it looked much different from how it appears today. The arch maintains its original form and some of its elements, like the decorative medallions symbolically depicting Brooklyn regiments involved in the war and the winged figures in the spandrels. In 1895, however, the arch received its greatest embellishments: equestrian bas-reliefs of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant in the interior arch, and three bronze sculptural group by Brooklyn native and prolific sculptor Frederick MacMonnies. On the two front plinths, one group represents the Army, the other the Navy. Up top, the crowing sculpture depicts the winged goddess of Victory on a chariot drawn by two horses. On either side of her, winged attendants remove two other horses from the quadriga, one to use for peacetime purposes, the other to trumpet victory and freedom. Designated a New York City Landmark in 1973, this monumental arch perfectly combines deep symbolism, visual beauty, and historic significance in an open sitting and makes Grand Army Plaza truly grand.
#2 Arch of Constantine (Arco di Constantino, Rome, Italy)
In a city where you seem to be constantly, and joyfully, tripping over ancient ruins, the massive and crumbling Arch of Constantine sometimes gets overlooked by its much larger and more popular neighbor, the Colosseum. This gargantuan triumphal arch dates back to 315, when it was dedicated to commemorate Emperor Constantine the Great’s victory over Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge three years earlier, a triumph that put Constantine on the road to becoming sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Strategically spanning the road used by victorious military leaders when they returned to Rome, the arch is the largest triumphal arch in the city, measuring 69’ high, 85’ wide, and 24’ deep. The arch itself is divided into three separate arches, the larger central one flanked by two smaller ones, about half its size. Although dedicated to Constantine, the arch’s decorative reliefs and statues were plucked from earlier monuments dedicated to other emperors, and the reasons remain unresolved — perhaps, in the rush to erect this arch, it was easier to pinch the art from existing sources than to create new works; another argument floats the notion that the builders felt no one during their time had the artistic skill of those who preceded them, so they just used what they felt would be more beautiful. Whatever the true explanation, they left behind an enduring, remarkable monument. The top part, the attic, is a blend of this old and new. The old comprises the four pairs of relief panels, taken from a monument erected in honor of Marcus Aurelius, who died nearly two centuries before Constantine came along. The new is the inscription above the central arch. Gone are the bronze letters of the inscription, but the recesses in which the letters sat clearly remain. Translated from Latin, it grandiosely reads: “To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.”
The arch’s main section incorporates four Corinthian columns of yellow marble standing on plinths decorated on three sides with reliefs of figures of Victory holding palm branches or inscribing a shield, and of barbarians with and without their Roman captors. A horizontal frieze above each lateral archway that runs around the monument depicts scenes from Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius, starting from his departure, to the Battle of Milvian Bridge (with the losing emperor drowning in the Tiber River, which apparently wasn’t satisfactory enough for Constantine: Maxentius’ body was recovered the day after the battle, paraded throughout Rome, and finally shipped off to Africa), to Constantine’s return to Rome, where he spoke to citizens on the Forum and distributed money to the common people. Round reliefs above the frieze portray scenes of bear, boar, and lion hunting, and of sacrifices to Apollo, Diana, and Hercules. Additional medallions depict the rising sun and the moon, both carried on chariots. Reliefs depicting winged Victory fill the spandrels of the main archway; those of river gods occupy the spandrels of the smaller archways. In the central archway, two panels illustrate Trajan’s Dacian War, two centuries before Constantine. Inside the lateral archways, eight portrait busts have suffered from age, weather, war, and earthquakes so that they are unable to be identified. The arch gained international attention when it served as the finish line for the marathon in the 1960 Summer Olympics. But its influence goes back a bit more than that, serving as the inspiration for two of my other favorite arches: London’s Marble Arch and Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
#3 Triumphal Arch of the Star (Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Paris, France)
Probably the most recognized arch in the world, one of Paris’ most famous monuments stands at the center of the “star” of a juncture formed by a dozen radiating avenues, including the most well-known, the Champs-Élysées. The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought for France during the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars. Designed in 1806 but not completed until 1836, it remained the world’s tallest triumphal arch, at 164’, until 1938. Four beautiful sculptural groups at the base are applied to the vast ashlar masonry masses: Departure of the Volunteers of 1792, The Triumph of 1810, Resistance, and Peace. Above them, six sculpted reliefs represent important moments of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, including the Fall of Alexandria that booted the Ottoman army out of Egypt and the Battle of Austerlitz, a pivotal victory for Napoleon over the Austrian and Russian armies and the one that spurred the creation of this arch. Above them, a richly sculpted frieze wraps around the entire arch, and, above that, the attic bears 30 shields engraved with the names of French victories during the cited wars. The inside walls of the arch list the names of major French victories in the Napoleonic Wars and of 660 people who fought for France, including 558 generals of the First French Empire, with those killed in battle underlined. Allegorical figures representing characters from Roman mythology fill the spandrels of the arch, and 21 sculpted roses adorn the ceiling of the coffered vault of the main arch. Since its construction, a wide variety of people in an even wider variety of situations have passed under the arch: Napoleon’s remains in 1840, Victor Hugo’s body in 1885, the invading Germans in 1871, victorious French troops in 1919, and, most dramatically, aviator and French Air Force veteran Charles Godefroy flying in his biplane in 1919. Following the addition of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under its vault in 1920, and the lighting of the first eternal flame in Europe since the fourth century, however, parades skirt around the arch, out of respect for the tomb and its symbolism — a protocol respected not only by the French and their allies during World War II celebrations in 1944 and 1945, but also by the conquering Germans, including Hitler, in 1940.
#4 Bridge of Remembrance (Christchurch, New Zealand)
On my way to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, I came upon the graceful Bridge of Remembrance. Marking one end of the short crossing over the Avon River, this triumphal arch is both a dedication to New Zealanders who died during World War I and a memorial to those who fought in both world wars and subsequent conflicts. Monumentalism, utility, and symbolism combine perfectly in a dignified memorial to New Zealand’s dead. Unveiled in 1924, the triple arch is built of concrete faced with Tasmanian stone. Two small arches flank the soaring central arch. Atop each of the smaller ones, a lion representing the British Empire looks bravely outward. The pillars of the main arch sport torches and list half a dozen locations where troops fought — Mesopotamia, France, Belgium, Palestine, Egypt, and, most tragically, Gallipoli, a failed attempt by the Allies to take control of the Turkish straits that dragged on for eight months and resulted in nearly 7,500 casualties, both deaths and injuries, for the New Zealand contingent. Newer plaques were added to mark major World War II campaigns. Symbolic laurel wreaths represent triumph, and rosemary leaves accompany the appropriate Shakespearean quote: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” The bridge was restricted to pedestrian use in 1976, which gives visitors ample opportunity to admire this graceful arch that was registered as a heritage structure with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1985. The arch’s location here is particularly significant, as it rises on the site of the former bridge that carried marching troops out of the country and off to their modern-day Armageddon, some never to return. Those who did, and those who continue to do so, will find a simple but meaningful acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice in the Latin inscription atop the arch’s central frame that translates as, “What not for country?”
#5 Washington Square Arch (New York, New York)
At the northern entrance of New York’s Washington Square, a triumphal arch designed by Stanford White, one of American’s finest architects, honors America’s first president, George Washington. White was commissioned to design the arch to replace an 1889 plaster and wood arch a few yards north of the current arch whose popularity spurred the creation of this one. Designed in 1892 and constructed of white Tuckahoe marble, the new arch commemorates the centennial of Washington’s inauguration as president of the United States in 1789. Things got off to a creepy start when, during excavations, human remains, a coffin, and a gravestone dated 1803 were found 10’ below ground. Dedicated in 1895, Washington Arch stands 77’ high, with the arch opening itself at 47’ high. The wrap-around frieze comprises stars, laurel wreaths, and capital “W”s. Winged figures of Victory fill the spandrels. Other symbols include crossed swords, eagles, and garlands. The inscription on the attic on the south side includes a quote from Washington: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.” Rows of rosettes cover the arch’s coffered soffit. The arch received additional adornment in the late 1910s in the form of two sculptures: George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor and George Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice, the latter of which includes a hand holding an open book bearing a Latin phrase that translates as “The end justifies the deed.” This grand, iconic arch has proven so popular with New Yorkers that it has even been adopted as an unofficial symbol of New York University, one of the arch’s most high-profile neighbors.
- Marble Arch (1828, London, England)
- Queenstown War Memorial (1922, Queenstown, New Zealand)
- Entrance Arch (1843, Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark)
- Roosevelt Arch (1903, Yellowstone National Park, Gardiner, Montana)
- Soldiers Memorial Gate (1921, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island)
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