If the proposed Monument to Democracy, a peace memorial honoring the dead of the First World War, had been built in the Washington Heights section of New York City, it would have been a massive complex with more than 50 statues and an arch taller than the ones in Washington Square Park and Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

To understand the audacious vision for the Monument to Democracy, one has to first understand the man who conceived it and single-handedly tried to make it a reality.

George Grey Barnard was a leading sculptor in the early 1900s who received several major commissions, including a statuary group completed in 1911 at the Pennsylvania State Capitol.  He was also an art collector and after spending several years in France moved to Washington Heights shortly before World War I.

He was as uncompromising as he was talented. For example, after he designed statues for the pediments of the New York Public Library, he blasted John Donnelly, the architectural sculptor who carved and placed the statues, for not following his plans and sued him for $50,000. “They are a disgrace to me as well as to the reputation of a great city. I insist that these figures be taken down,” Barnard declared indignantly.

Barnard with British Sculptor Clare Sheridan at The Cloisters (1921). Photo by Ralph Pulitzer. Via Wikimedia Commons

He lost the library fight but around the same time he scored one of his greatest triumphs. In 1914 he opened The Cloisters, a museum at Fort Washington Avenue and 190th Street near his home in Washington Heights, showcasing his extensive collection of Gothic and Romanesque art that he had assembled during his time in France.

After World War I ended in 1918, he began a new project called the Monument to Democracy, a national peace memorial dedicated to those who died on the battlefields and their surviving families.

Bromley Map, 1930, Showing the Original Cloisters and Barnard’s Buildings Along Fort Washington Avenue. Via NY Public Library Digital Collections

The plans for the monument included a 100-foot tall marble arch with a rainbow mosaic, a bronze tree of life, and more than 50 statue figures. Meant to reflect the futility of war, it included figures representing fallen soldiers, widows, and bereaved mothers. The rainbow was intended as a symbol of hope.

Barnard wanted to place it on high ground in Fort Tryon Park. Even more ambitiously, he talked of a grand acropolis with other artwork, marble plazas, and an amphitheater.

For nearly 20 years, Barnard worked on creating full-size plaster and wood models of the “Rainbow Arch,” statues, and tree of life.

To help finance this endeavor, he sold his Cloisters art collection for $600,000 in 1925 to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The Cloisters became a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art but remained on Barnard’s property until a new facility could be constructed. (Click here to see film shot at the original Cloisters in 1928.)

Despite some setbacks, Barnard finished the models in 1936 and talked of finally transferring them into marble. The full installation was put on public display inside a former powerhouse building in Inwood where he worked on the project (the arch would not fit inside his home studio).

Meanwhile, Rockefeller built a new home for the Cloisters, which opened in 1938, in part of the area of Fort Tryon Park where Barnard had wanted to place the monument. As a result, Barnard planned to put the arch and statues on his own property adjacent to the old Cloisters. But in the interim, Barnard reused the old Cloisters space to exhibit other art he owned, in a new museum called the Abbaye.

Barnard died in April, 1938 at the age of 74, just two weeks before the new Cloisters opened in Fort Tryon Park. Consider his legacy: he created The Cloisters as his personal project and it flourished in the hands of Rockefeller and the Met who placed it in the park, but his grand, if not quixotic, Monument to Democracy, lacking such a patron, remained a dream unrealized.

His will called for his estate to pay for the completion of the monument. However, the funds available were insufficient to cover all of the costs. Despite some initial interest from other groups in helping to finance the project, other funding sources never materialized.

Barnard’s home/studio, the original Cloisters location, and the property where he hoped to place the monument, were sold and replaced with apartment buildings in the 1940s.

The models were stored, first at locations in New York and beginning in 1945 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which bought much of his still extensive art collection. In an interview with Untapped Cities, Brian E. Hack, who is writing a book about the Monument to Democracy and other key Barnard projects, told us that “unfortunately very little remains of the models, just a few scattered small pieces in poor condition.”

Barnard’s legacy lives on elsewhere, including his statue of Pan at Columbia University and, of course, at The Cloisters.

The Second, and Current, Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park

Next, read about 8 other monumental arches of NYC, Pierre Huyghe’s rooftop sculpture installation at the Met, and check out the Cloisters, a medieval museum on the hill. Contact the author @Jeff_Reuben