This plaza honors the prominent French statesman and military leader Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). Lafayette is best remembered for his role in the Revolutionary War. Sympathetic to the American cause, he aided the colonists through the provision of experienced military leadership. The Frenchman quickly became a favorite of General George Washington, who appointed him Major General in the Continental Army during 1777. In 1778, Lafayette returned to France following the formal agreement of the France/United States alliance against Great Britain. Once in France, he actively lobbied for the allotment of increased military and financial aid. In 1780, Marquis de Lafayette returned to America and served valorously in the Virginia campaign, which forced the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis and Great Britain in 1781.
As a true proponent of democracy, Lafayette assumed a leading role in the French Revolution of 1789. He became a member of the National Assembly, from which he propagated a bill of rights based on the American Declaration of Independence. He commanded the French National Guard and the Feuillants, a moderate political party that advocated a constitutional monarchy. He gained leadership of a French division, during 1792, in the war against Austria. Chastised by the Jacobins, the radical opponents of the Feuillants, Lafayette fled to Flanders where Austrian authorities imprisoned him for five years. Upon his return to France, he avoided the politics of Dictator Napolean Bonaparte. Following Napolean’s defeat at Waterloo, Lafayette resumed his political career as a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1815 and again, from 1818 to 1824. He toured the United States in 1824 during which time Congress presented him with a gift of $200,000 and a large tract of land. Marquis de Lafayette spent the remainder of his life in France and withheld the values of democracy, social equality, and religious freedom.
From its hillside location, Plaza Lafayette offers an unobstructed view of the George Washington Bridge. Located on 179th Street, the bridge is the city’s only above-water Hudson River crossing. The structure is composed of two 600 foot, arched towers that suspend the roadway 212 feet using four 4 foot steel cables. Massive anchorages located in Fort Washington Park and Fort Lee, New Jersey secure the cables. Designed by Othmar H. Ammann, the bridge opened in 1931 as the longest suspension span in the world. Originally, Ammann intened the arched towers to be encased in stone. The designer also proposed plans for a second, lower roadway. Although the planned masonry was never added, the Port of New York Authority added the lower roadway in 1962 to accommodate increased traffic. The George Washington Bridge serves as Interstate 95’s vital connection between New York and New Jersey, carrying the majority of mid-Atlantic traffic to New England. A graceful, light appearance and majestic nighttime illumination disguise the bridge’s tremendous traffic capacity. Renowned modernist architect Le Corbusier described the span as the most beautiful in the world.
Plaza Lafayette is located on 181st Street and is bounded by Riverside Drive and Haven Avenue. The City of New York acquired the property and placed it under Parks jurisdiction on February 23, 1918. The narrow strip is lined with five trees and lush greenery.