Dewey Arch, Madison Square, New York, 1900

Modeled after the Arch of Titus in Rome, the Dewey Arch was carved in about six weeks by 28 renowned sculptors. The arch was topped by a quadriga sculpted by J.Q.A. Ward, with four seahorses pulling a ship. Lower down were portrait sculptures of such naval heroes as Commodore John Paul Jones, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, and Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. The arch and six double-trophy columns were lit by electric lights at night.

Prior to May 1898, 60-year old Commodore George Dewey was a little-known leader of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet. All that changed during the Spanish-American War, when Dewey was wired from Washington to attack the Spanish navy in retaliation for Spain’s assail on the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

The Commodore directed his command vessel, the U.S.S. Olympia, to Manila Bay in the Philippines, where she was victorious over the rotting wood ships of the Spanish Armada. This stunning naval victory over Spain established the U.S. as a global military power, and elevated Commodore Dewey as the country’s greatest hero.

Once city leaders realized Dewey was coming to New York in September, plans were made for a magnificent two-day tribute that would include a grandiose parade on September 30, a fireworks display, and illumination of the harbor. It was also decided to erect a ceremonial arch and colonnade on Fifth Avenue at 24th Street to permanently honor the war hero. The city hired architect Charles R. Lamb, who, along with fellow members of the National Sculpture Society, designed the $26,000, 100-foot-tall Dewey Arch.

Commodore Dewey, together with New York Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck

Commodore Dewey, together with New York Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck, led the grand parade in a horse-drawn carriage, a beautiful Victoria pulled by four sturdy bays. Forty-three other coaches, filled with political and naval dignitaries, followed, along with almost 35,000 military personnel.

Because there was very little time, however, the planners decided to first build a temporary arch out of staff, which was made of plaster and wood shavings. Later, the arch would be reproduced in white marble and made permanent. (This was how the Washington Square Arch had been constructed just a few years earlier.)

A Home for Olympia and Her Kittens

So what does all this historic stuff have to do with a cat and her kittens? The temporary construction of the Dewey Arch is the key to this Christmas cat tale.

Following the celebrations in September 1899, the arch began to quickly deteriorate. Passing vehicles and carriage wheels made several large holes in the base of the double trophy-columns, and souvenir seekers had also begun chipping off pieces of the arch (bits sold for 15 cents each). But that was just fine for one large grey cat that roamed the streets near Madison Square — a hole in the corner of one of the columns would be the perfect place to give birth to her kittens.

According to the national story first told in The New York Herald, two weeks before Christmas the stray feline took refuge in the hole. The following morning, the cabmen who were stationed across from the Fifth Avenue Hotel heard mewing sounds coming from within. When they investigated, they found the mother cat – whom they named Olympia – nursing four newborn kittens.

The kittens were adopted by the cabmen, who named them Dewey, George, Manila, and Cavite. (Other news articles said Olympia gave birth to seven kittens, who were taken in by Brigadier General Charles E. Furlong, a long-time resident at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. He reportedly cared for them and named them Dewey, Schley, Sampson, Hobson, Sigsbee, Gridley, and Bill Anthony.)

USS Olympia (C-6/CA-15/CL-15/IX-40)

The cabmen named the mother cat Olympia, after the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Following the cabmen’s discovery, a nearby shopkeeper provided a bed of excelsior shavings for the feline family’s home and the hotel supplied some food (including raw beef and maybe even some Lobster a la Newberg). The cabmen also donated tidbits from their lunches to help nourish the mother cat.

During the two weeks leading to Christmas, the cabmen and stalwart policemen guarded over the new cat family, protecting them from the newsboys and thousands of other curious strangers who tried to either grab or taunt them. The men also kept a constant lookout for Christmas shoppers who attempted to kidnap the kittens. Olympia often left the niche to stroll down Fifth Avenue on her own, although on one of her ventures she carried a kitten in her mouth and presented it to one of the cabmen.

This fabulous video from 1899 shows all the traffic at the arch:

On Christmas Day, the cabmen and policemen presented Olympia with a special holiday dinner. The New York Times called her “the happiest cat in New York this Christmas,” noting her meal would comprise several courses of “the most luxurious viands to be secured on Fifth Avenue.” The kittens also received a present (although I’m not sure they were too thrilled by this): The cabmen said that once they were old enough, they would all go for a ride in an automobile.

Dewey Arch Madison Square

This view of the Dewey Arch shows the double-trophy columns and the edge of Madison Square Park.

The Demise of the Dewey Arch

There are no reports on how long Olympia and her kittens called the Arch their home, but the structure was also apparently home to homeless men in the warmer months. On July 15, 1900, the Times reported many gaping holes in the columns were occupied by transient men (the police called it the Dewey Arch Hotel). In August 1900 The New York Evening Post called the deteriorating arch an “eyesore and disgrace” that was “becoming a public danger.”

An attempt to raise money to have the arch rebuilt with more durable materials failed, and Colonel William Conant Church announced that all donations would be returned. At a meeting of the Municipal Assembly in November 1900, a resolution was passed unanimously by both houses authorizing Commissioner James P. Keating of the Department of Streets and Highways to spend the money appropriated for repairing the structure to tear it down.

William Conant Church

William Conant Church (1836 – 1917) served in the Civil War and was a life member and director of the New York Zoological Society. In 1900, he was in charge of a citizen’s Arch Perpetuation Committee that fought to make the Dewey Arch a permanent structure.

On November 15, Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck signed an ordinance directing the demolition of the arch; at 8 p.m. that same day, the crew — a dozen men with pickaxes, crowbars, and shovels — appeared at Madison Square and started to remove the columns.

Dewey Arch Battle Group

One of the four Battle Groups that were temporarily preserved from the Dewey Arch. The groups included Call to Arms, Battle, Return of the Victors, and Peace.

A few days after the demolition work had begun, the committee received an offer for the arch from Bradford Lee Gilbert, architect for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. Although a crowd of boys had punched holes in the top (making it look like “a colossal pepper box”), Gilbert took what was the left of the arch back to Charleston.

Art Palace, Charleston

As the photo shows, Gilbert placed two of the arch’s battle group sculptures on either side of the Art Palace at the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. Photo: George Grantham Bain News Service

In June 1902, the exposition closed and the Art Palace, along with the remains of the arch, was demolished. (Although who knows, there may also be some pieces of the arch among old keepsake boxes in closets or attics.)

  1. ; says:

    Another piece of New York City history. Wonder if Admiral Dewey was father of (or related to) Thomas Dewey – the man who almost became President.

    • P. Gavan says:

      Yes, Thomas E. Dewey, 47th Governor of New York and two-time Republican candidate for President, was the son of George Dewey. But his father was a newspaper editor in Michigan.

      Admiral George Dewey did have a son, but his name was also George. The Admiral did consider running for president himself, in 1900 (on the Democratic ticket), but he withdrew from the race and endorsed McKinley.

  2. […] traveling to New York in March 1900 so Princess Lwoff could paint Admiral George Dewey, the newlywed couple moved to a villa in Bavaria. The princess, however, soon grew tired of the […]