The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

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26 Responses to “The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade”

  1. KPD Says:

    The last one might show ice held in tongs.

  2. fmlondon Says:

    I think, in the bottom one, the hand is holding tongs and an ice chunk.

  3. Tony Towle Says:

    I think the receptacle at the side of a third man could be a coal bucket, and the “string” held by the fourth man looks like ice tongs holding a block of ice — which, with the broom and dustpan makes those three looks like symbols of service to the tenants — in a 20th-century mode, not medieval at all. Which makes the man who’s relaxing and reading more odd rather than less — unless he’s the tenant who benefits from the work of others? That would have seemed offensive then, too, no?

  4. Meredith Says:

    The bottom two are a pail of coal and a block of ice. This seems a tribute to the essential workers of the time.

  5. Meredith Says:

    Perhaps the book indicates that is a student?

    The way in which the essential workers are relaxing makes me wonder if this house was originally an affordable housing option. (“Original” meaning this building’s intent, since I know the building replaced what was a row of magnificent buildings from the 19th century.)

  6. edwardleather Says:

    55 Par Avenue! not Park Avenue South

  7. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I think the third reclining figure may be checking his iPhone?

  8. Rick Says:

    It looks like a comparison of work (the janitor / the ice deliverer) and relaxation (the studious reader / the man feeding a bird from a bucket of birdseed)

  9. bernardo gonzalez Says:

    Hi beautiful pics, but are you sure that it’s the facade?

    Thanks so much for your post and great webpage 😊

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re welcome! It’s the facade, these are on the face of the building, except for the motifs carved into the doorway.

  10. ellen gruber garvey Says:

    Given that the other three are holding work implements – yes, essential workers – and the binding on the reading material makes it look like some kind of account book or log book or roster, I wonder if that, too, is a sign of service work. Their faces look distinct — the man with the broom even wears glasses. Could they refer to actual workers from this building or neighborhood? I wonder if there is any commentary on these figures in the newspapers of the time.

  11. Sue schwartz Says:

    The “Pail or lamp” is a coal hod, and the square on a rope is a block of ice With the tongs that were used for delivery. These people were maybe meant to thank essential workers.

  12. emmjay Says:

    I think the book reader is actually a brick layer. The object he’s holding is a brick or stone, not a book.

  13. Lisa Garber Says:

    The last photo – could it show a block of ice held by tongs?

  14. Bob Says:

    This building was designed and built by Fred F. French. From LPC’s designation report on Tudor City:

    “At the core of this extraordinary success was the ‘French Plan’ which Fred French created in 1921. An innovative form of co-investment by the French Company and its tenants/owners, the Plan was based on ‘making a small profit on a large business as opposed to large profits on a small business.’

    “French explained the concept as follows:
    ‘It is our belief that the people whose money helped to make such building enterprises possible should receive in addition to safety, a fair share of the profits earned. Accordingly, it was decided that the entire net profits from the operation of a building should be devoted towards repaying the investors, together with
    6% cumulative dividends, before any distribution of such profits could be made to the Fred F. French Companies. Thereafter, by equal division of the common stock, the public receives half the profits in perpetuity.’

    “Unlike the more common cooperative investment plans, the French Plan turned over land to its investors at actual cost without
    padding construction or real estate expenses.
    Crucial to the success of the French Plan was the comprehensive organization of French’s multiple real estate and building concerns. In the course of time, his various involvements developed into individual companies. United under one president—Fred French himself—each handled a different aspect of the enterprise and was directed by an appropriate
    leader: head architect, builder, owner, contractor, or underwriter. According to the Plan, a site was acquired by the Fred F. French Investing Company, and the design program laid out and supervised by the Fred F. French Company, Architects and Builders. The Fred F. French Investing Company underwrote and
    sold the stock for a new corporation, formed in each case for ownership of the building. The Investing Company retained fifty percent of the stock for services in underwriting and promotion. Finally, upon completion of the building by the Fred F. French Construction Company, it was turned over to the Fred F. French Management Company.

    “Prior to 1925-26 the French Plan had been restricted to residential properties, including apartment houses at 15, 16, 17, and 55 Park Avenue, 34 East 51st Street, 247 West 75th Street, 22 West 77th Street, and buildings on Fifth Avenue. Among the latter were apartment houses at numbers 1010, 1140, and 1160.
    The first commercial application of the Plan appears to have been the Fred F. French Building on Fifth Avenue, a designated New
    York City Landmark. Also financed by the Plan were the two vast East Side enterprises—Tudor City and Knickerbocker Village—and it was there that the financial wizardry of Fred French was best revealed.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I had no idea this was a Fred French building. I always associate him with Tudor City. Thanks Bob!

  15. Lisa Marrero Says:

    The lowest two figures depict a coal scuttle and an ice delivery. The figures celebrate the workers who go uncelebrated and largely unnoticed

  16. Peggy Says:

    Is it possible there was a service entrance? The photos don’t show the setting of these janitor, bricklayer, coal and ice delivery images.

  17. Richard Bergman Says:


    I recognize the tool and object held by the bottom figure. He’s an iceman, holding ice tongs. Why touch the ice? I love how the sculptor gave each person a unique character.

    I remember how, in 1930’s Rochester, the Ice Man would drive his horse-drawn ice wagon along the streets, the ice wrapped in burlap. We’d hang the ice sign in the window to show how much ice we wanted that day. Hang it with 50 on top, he’d bring 50 lbs., slung over his shoulder, with leather (horsehide?) between his shoulder and the ice. Then, into the icebox.

    I imagine the same happened in NYC.

    Best wishes,

    Richard Bergman


    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Richard, I believe it is indeed ice the man is holding with tongs. I should have recognized that because I’ve seen many images of old New York showing ice trucks and ice men doing their work. Thanks for sharing your memories of Rochester…being an ice man was tough work!

  18. datura Says:

    They’re not ancient scholars then, the last one holding a pair of calipers and measuring something?

  19. Adam Says:

    Here’s a random thought for you… could that last figure actually be a very obscure or disguised nod to the Freemasons?
    The tongs & cube form pretty much the exact lines of the classic Freemason symbol of the square & the compass.
    Worth noting that stonemasons, the original Freemasons, use tong-like tools to lift large stone blocks into place…
    Anyhews… just a thought.

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