Looking up and staring while walking around in Times Square sounds like the classic stance of a gawking tourist, but should you happen to be at the northeast corner of Forty-Sixth Street and Seventh Avenue, I suggest you take a few moments to do just that. At a time when every square inch of the area seems to be covered by video screens, the owners of the one-time I. Miller building have beautifully restored a rather unique feature of a bygone era.
Gaze above ground level along Forty-Sixth Street and you’ll spy four gold-flecked alcoves with statues of four famous women entertainers – famous by 1920s standards. Shoe entrepreneur I. Miller, in renovating the existing building in 1926 as an outlet for his growing shoe store chain, made the decision to honor great women in the performing arts, and so each alcove is dedicated to a paragon of her field: Ethel Barrymore for drama, Marilyn Miller for musicals, Mary Pickford for film and Rosa Ponselle for opera. They first appeared in 1928.
Although the building received landmark status in 1999, by 2008 The New York Times described the state of the statues as follows, “Today, Israel Miller’s building has descended to a sorry state, with brutish plastic signage in minimal box frames, broken marble trim and the limestone stained by dirt. Miss Barrymore gazes up, as if pleading for a hot shower.” That description no longer applies, as the photos on this post attest – they were taken just yesterday after scaffolding around the building came down, affording the best view for some time.
The sculptures, incidentally, aren’t merely the work of a journeyman artist. They are by Alexander Stirling Calder – the son of Alexander Milne Calder, a premier artist of Philadelphia who crafted the statue of William Penn that caps Philly’s city hall, and the father of the Alexander Calder whose mobiles and wire sculptures are renowned in the sphere of modern art.
Times Square has been an advertising mecca dating back to the days when I. Miller unveiled his store and sculptures, so it’s foolish to inveigh against encroaching commercialism. But it is comforting to know that these great ladies have been restored to their rightful place, grace notes in a riot of color and light.
Note: by clicking on each photo in this post, you can bring up a larger version of each one, affording a better view of each great lady in her perch above the Times Square fray. All photos © Howard Sherman.