Who is the man on a Greenwich Village building?

AlabamafacadeManhattan corners don’t get much lovelier than West 11th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. And one especially sweet building on the north side is the wonderfully named Alabama.

Affiliated with the nearby Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Alabama dates back to the mid-19th century, going through various incarnations as a hotel, apartment house, co-op, and now a dorm, it seems.

There’s nothing unusual about the building at all. It has typical period detailing and decorative elements . . . except for the very late 20th century–looking man’s face above the front entrance.


Gargoyles, the Green Man sculptures, griffins—these are all pretty normal for a 19th century New York residence.

But who is this cool person in sunglasses and a cowboy hat, and why does he look a little like Tom Petty?

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15 Responses to “Who is the man on a Greenwich Village building?”

  1. r185 Says:

    Can’t tell from the photo, but does it look newer than the building?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’m thinking it has to be. But it really blends in well.

  3. alexei Says:

    A cool looking sculpture. It is probably Alabama related.

    But it looks a lot like Doug Sahm of the Sir Douglas Quintet, but of course he wasn’t even born when the building went up.

  4. GC Says:

    It was the hotel Van Rensselaer until the early ’70s:

  5. GC Says:

    Renovation from the hotel:

  6. GC Says:

    p.286 idk why the link didn’t include that

  7. Bella Stander Says:

    My guess is that the man is an Alabama planter or plantation overseer. The Van Rensselaer was a separate hotel from The Alabama until at least 1906, per this NYT obit of the buildings’ owner: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A04E1D91F3EE233A2575BC0A9649C946997D6CF

  8. Mary Gerdt Says:


  9. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Although the face is presented as the keystone of an arch, it still could have been installed at a much later date than during the orig. construction. It resembles an addition that would have been added
    no earlier than the 19960s. As unique as it is, a big part of the attraction today is ‘the mystery.’

  10. M.Lane Says:

    It has to be Ronnie Van Zant the original front man for Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is a dead ringer with the admittedly Tom Petty glasses. Their most famous song……Sweet Home Alabama. Plus Ronnie was a Yankees fan. Look at this

  11. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks M. Lane, it all fits. But Ronnie has a much puffier face compared to the sunken angular face on the building. Perhaps the artist behind the head just wasn’t very good?

  12. Beth Says:

    The glasses really strike me as 1980s Tom Petty (Dont Come Around Here No More video). So weird!

  13. Brian Formoe Says:

    Anyone still working this mystery? Thinking this has a Steven Stills/ Buffalo Springfield/ Cosby Stills Nash & Young era resemblance which would (sort of) fit with the 1973 Elghanayan brothers (through Rockrose Associates) renovations. Perhaps one of the brothers would remember the circumstances as it must have been a prank of some kind. Cannot find any older images of the Alabama entrance which would be nice for comparison.

  14. RD Wolff Says:

    When I was a kid we stayed in the Van R hotel for a little while before securing an apartment, 1971 or so, I remember some idiots were building bombs in a basement which the blew up taking out a small building near by.
    The keystone is an original, they don’t replace keystones unless there is a structural defect, and certainly not on a whim. The carving would have been done by an anonymous stone carver who would have carved it in place. The hat is typical of what men wore back then, and every man wore a hat.

    It’s a rather poor carving, somewhat amateurish and could have been done by a young carver who hadn’t carved many faces at that point, but who had carved decorative elements.
    The glasses would have been typical vision glasses not sun glasses and could have been anyone the carver might have run into, or someone more connected to the building such as the owner’s son.

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