The mystery of the mermaid on East 23rd Street

At the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street—a busy intersection at the border of Kips Bay—stands a squat, two-story building.

With a tan-brick facade and cookie-cutter rectangular shape, the building is empty of ground floor tenants, which not long ago included unglamorous neighborhood shops like a mattress outlet and cell phone store.

The one distinguishing factor of this building is how undistinguished it is in a neighborhood where restored cast-iron commercial spaces share the streets with low-rise walkups, tenements, and modern high-rise residential towers.

But there’s something mysterious above one of the empty store entrances on the 23rd Street side: a circular medallion of a mermaid, or siren, swimming among fish on the waves of the sea. She has a face of contentment, her eyes closed, her long hair free beneath a three-pointed crown.

The medallion is surrounded by brickwork that enhances its beauty. But where did it come from? The building doesn’t appear to date back farther than the late 1950s, while the mermaid seems to be in the artistic style of the late 19th or early 20th century.

It’s possible that the mermaid came from an earlier building either knocked down or renovated into the squat postwar structure. Previous turn-of-the-century businesses at the address—either 301 Third Avenue or 201-205 East 23rd Street—include a bank, the New York College of Dentistry, according to Songlines, the New-York Ophthalmic Hospital, and the office of a D. Peraza, who sold powders and tonics via periodical ads of dubious quality.

The mermaid seems like a much better fit for an entertainment venue—a theater perhaps, or a music hall. But this corner is a little to the east of the city’s Gilded Age/early 1900s theater district and Madison Square Garden. Maybe home to a German singing society? New York’s Little Germany, or Kleindutschland, extended from the East Village into the Gramercy area at the time.

It’s the only ornamentation of any kind on the building, yet it’s easy to miss, and it isn’t the kind of strange loveliness you don’t expect to find on an otherwise utilitarian building.

The mermaid medallion must have a good backstory; at the very least, it’s one of those architectural mysteries that make New York City streets so fascinating.

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13 Responses to “The mystery of the mermaid on East 23rd Street”

  1. susan nierenberg Says:

    Perhaps it signified a place where seamen could go for drink or meal- or maybe board for the nights they were in port in NYC

  2. beth Says:

    Interesting she landed there-

  3. Laura Wilke Says:

    Which corner is she on? I know SVA is right there too, which must be in one of the old cast iron buildings because it has large rooms inside it. I would think the mermaid would be a symbol of a seamans organization. Didn’t Starbucks take its logo idea from a seaman’s club.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The building is on the northeast corner, and the mermaid is on the 23rd Street side above the commercial space once occupied by a cell phone store. SVA is right next door.
      A seaman’s organization makes sense…I didn’t find any trace of one at the site though.

  4. Lola Antun Says:

    I hope someone buys it and takes down and puts it somewhere safe. It’s already falling apart.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Perhaps the builder of this “taxpayer” (is that word still in use in this context?) parked the freize there for future use elsewhere, and maybe the future has yet to come for it. Just conjecturing….

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It’s certainly possible the taxpayer builder salvaged it from another site or whatever building was here first. I was hoping to uncover an old theater or other venue at this site, but so far the trail is cold!

  6. Marty Oppenheim Says:

    Great find. Hope someone solves the mystery!

  7. R Bateman Says:

    Thank you for sharing the clipping about 23rd street and the mermaid. I have walked past the building in question and had not noticed the terracotta emblem on 23rd street. I will now make a point of looking for it the next time I venture to the east side of 23rd.

    The story has piqued my interest. Since the neighborhood bears the name “Kips Bay”, the namesake of one of the Dutch settlers named Hendrick Kip, I am inclined to think that the mermaid image on that building may have a connection to the Kip family’s nautical past. The Dutch were well known traders throughout the world. The Dutch, I believe, coined the term “meermin” or mermaid based upon the mythical stories of sailors.

    I found a reference to a tchotchke depicting a mermaid, which is titled “Kip by the Sea”.

    See it at https://www.kipbythesea.com.au/products/mermaid-planter

    According to the Realtor listing for the building, the current structure was built in 1960. See description below…

    Description

    301 Third Avenue is a Building located in the Kips Bay neighborhood in Manhattan, NY. 301 Third Avenue was built in 1960 and has 2 stories and 7 units.

    The following is a brief history of “Kips Bay”… published on wikipedia.

    Kips Bay was an inlet of the East River running from what is now 32nd Street to 37th Street. The bay extended into Manhattan Island to just west of what is now First Avenue and had two streams that drained into it. The bay was named after New Netherland Dutch settler Jacobus Hendrickson Kip (1631–1690), son of Hendrick Hendricksen Kip, whose farm ran north of present-day 30th Street along the East River.[13] The bay became reclaimed land, yet “Kips Bay” remains the name of the area. Kip built a large brick and stone house, near the modern intersection of Second Avenue and East 35th Street. The house stood from 1655 to 1851, expanded more than once,[14] and when it was demolished was the last farmhouse from New Amsterdam remaining in Manhattan.[15] Iron figures fixed into the gable-end brickwork commemorated the year of its first construction.[13] Its orchard was famous, and, when first President George Washington was presented with a sip of its Rosa gallica during his first administration (1789-1793), when New York was serving as the first national capital city, it was claimed to have been the first garden to have grown it in the Thirteen Colonies.[16]

    Kips Bay was the site of the Landing at Kip’s Bay, an episode of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and part of the New York and New Jersey campaign. About 4,000 British Army troops under General William Howe landed at Kips Bay on September 15, 1776, near what is now the foot of East 33rd Street off the East River from a Royal Navy fleet which had first landed earlier on Staten Island, then Long Island for the pivotal Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island) the previous month. Howe’s forces defeated about 500 American militiamen stationed at Kips Bay by Washington and commanded by Colonel William Douglas. The American forces immediately retreated, and the British occupied New York Town at the south point of the island soon afterward forcing General Washington to retreat northward to the Harlem River.[17]

    Wood frame house and brick carriage house of uncertain age[7][18] at 203 East 29th Street
    A single survivor of the late 18th or early 19th century in the neighborhood is the simple vernacular white clapboard house, much rebuilt, at 203 East 29th Street. The house, standing gable-end to the street, is one of a mere handful of wooden houses that remain on Manhattan Island. Its date of construction is unknown[18] but has been variously dated from around 1790[19] to as late as 1870;[7] currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house is privately owned and not open to the public.

    South of the Kips Bay Farm stood the substantial Federal-style villa erected facing the East River by Henry A. Coster,[20] in the thirty-acre estate[21] that was purchased in 1835 by Anson Greene Phelps;[22] towards the city, the Bull’s Head cattle market fronting the Boston Post Road extended southwards from 27th Street to 23rd Street, affording a distinctly less rural aspect;[23] the villa was removed to make way for row houses in the 1860s and the cattle market was moved farther out of town, to 42nd Street.[24]

    Later development

    Broadway Alley is nowhere near Broadway, and the origin of the name is unknown.[25]
    The neighborhood has been rebuilt in patches, featuring both new high-rise structures often set back from the street, and a multitude of exposed party walls that were never meant to be seen in public. A nearly forgotten feature is the private alley called Broadway Alley, between 26th and 27th Streets, halfway between Lexington and Third Avenues, reputedly the last unpaved street in Manhattan;[26][27] it is not known what this alley is named after, since it is not near the main Broadway.[25]

    In the 1960s and later, four Henry Phipps high-rise apartment complexes were constructed mainly on East 29th Street between First and Second Avenues, and south to East 27th Street. Historically, Phipps had been a partner of steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Much earlier in time, by 1940, the Madison Square Boys (and later Girls) Club, which had been located on East 30th Street just east of Second Avenue, built its own facilities on East 29th Street (back-to-back with its older facility). In the 1990s, the Club sold its facility to the Churchill School and Center, and moved its office in the Empire State Building.[28][29]

    The North Building of the Kips Bay Towers (I. M. Pei, architect)
    There are two large apartment buildings in the neighborhood named Kips Bay Towers, which are part of a 1,112-unit complex completed in 1963 and designed by architect I. M. Pei.[8]

    Built on a pier above the East River between East 25th and East 28th Streets is Waterside Plaza, which includes residential towers and the United Nations International School. There were plans to build additional above-water apartments, offices, and a hotel in the 1980s, but environmental concerns and community opposition doomed the project.[30] Today, the waterfront south of Waterside Plaza is Stuyvesant Cove Park. The park includes a small man-made land mass extending out into the East River, which was created from excess cement dumped into the river.[31]

    Hendrick Hendricksen Kip is mentioned in Washington Irving’s 1809 satirical history The Knickerbocker’s History of New York in the following (ahistorical) anecdote.
    [A group of Dutch settlers were sailing down the East River in a small boat:] “While the voyagers were looking around them, on what they conceived to be a serene and sunny lake, they beheld at a distance a crew of painted savages busily employed in fishing, who seemed more like the genii of this romantic region — their slender canoe lightly balanced like a feather on the undulating surface of the bay. At sight of these, the hearts of the heroes on Communipaw were not a little troubled. But as good fortune would have it, at the bow of the commodore’s boat was stationed a very valiant man named Hendrick Kip (which, being interpreted, means chicken; a name given him on token of his courage). No sooner did he behold those varlet heathens than he trembled with excessive valor, and, although a good half mile distant, he seized a musketoon that lay at hand, and turning away his head, fired it most intrepidly in the face of the blessed sun. The blundering weapon recoiled and gave the valiant Kip an ignominious kick that laid him prostrate with uplifted heels in the bottom of the boat. But such was the effect of this tremendous fire that the wild men of the woods, struck with consternation, seized hastily upon their paddles, and shot away into one of the deep inlets of the Long Island shore. This signal victory gave new spirits to the hardy voyagers, and in honor of the achievement they gave the name of the valiant Kip to the surrounding bay, and it has continued to be called “Kip’s Bay” from that time to the present.”

    Lastly, I found a digitized version of the “History of the Kip Family in America”, which contains some very interesting tidbits about lower Manhattan during the times of the Dutch colony in the 1600’s.

    You can peruse through the book at:

    https://archive.org/details/historyofkipfami00kipf_2/page/20/mode/2up

    All the best,

    R Bateman

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you so much for the information. I think it’s certainly possible the mermaid is a connection to the Kip family, and I didn’t know the word was coined by the Dutch. The mystery is who put it there, and what the building was—the brick seems to cover an original facade, in my opinion.

    • R Bateman Says:

      Considering the possibility that the Mermaid Theme derived from a local watering hole, several taverns throughout the region have incorporated the mermaid name into their business title… i.e. Mermaid Inn on 10th Ave., Mermaid Oyster Bar on Amsterdam Ave., and the Cowgirl Seahorse Bar on Front Street, NYC.

      For a short history on the evasive mermaid, go to https://thestreetnames.com/ of which the following was gleaned concerning other attributes of the name:

      On 9 January 1493, Christopher Columbus, spotted three manatees near the Dominican Republic and mistook them for mermaids. The disillusioned explorer reported that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. Manatees are considered to have been the source of the mermaid legends; they are now an endangered species.

      The painting of Mermaid by Waterhouse, a Pre-Raphaelite vision of a mermaid.

      Indeed: there is a Mermaid Court in the Southwark area of London; dating back to at least the early 18th century, it was named from an inn.

      The name was a common one, and especially popular for taverns in areas frequented by sailors, who had long believed in the existence of the beautiful creatures who were half woman, half fish. Mermaid Court is not far from the south bank of the Thames, and a tavern there could have attracted its fair share of nautical drinkers.

      Another, perhaps more famous, Mermaid Tavern was that on Cheapside, with patrons such as Ben Jonson and, legend has it, Shakespeare, though various sources doubt the accuracy of that assertion. Jonson wrote a satirical poem ‘On The Famous Voyage’ about two men journeying along the Fleet ditch, in which he writes:

      “At Bread Street’s Mermaid having dined, and merry,
      Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry.”

      Mermaids have been around for a long time and, though the mermaids of yore and lore are likely to be the dugong or the manatee, less than beautiful aquatic mammals, it seemed there was no shortage of them up until the 19th century.

      The Victorian merman (male version) goes back to the time of King John, a merman was supposed to have been caught and kept alive for six months on raw meal and fish until he made his escape and was never seen again. In the 17th century, a living mermaid was allegedly available for viewing in Bell Yard, and in the 18th century another one was spotted in the north of Scotland.

      There were several mermaids around in the 19th century, including one (live), which was exhibited in Fleet Street in 1822, and one (stuffed), which was on display at Bartholomew Fair and sketched by George Cruikshank. (“A wood-cut of her may be seen in Morley’s Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair.”)

      No self-respecting Victorian gentleman would be without a cabinet of curiosities; according to the London Science Museum (where the above story of a Victorian merman, or chimera, comes from), “These were collections of obscure and wonderful artefacts. This chimera in question is made of fish skin, bone, and scales covered in thin paper. It also has animal fur, teeth, claws and tissue attached to heighten the appearance of a ‘real’ animal.”

      The renowned painting of Drinking at the Mermaid Tavern, an Artist’s vision of Shakespeare and others in the Mermaid Tavern, provides another likely explanation for the name of the tavern itself is that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river (see Clink Street, Stew Lane, and Cardinal Cap Alley), ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan or “lady of the evening.”

      Etymology of the word mermaid (n.)

      “fabled marine or amphibian creature having the upper body in the form of a woman and the lower in the form of a fish, with human attributes,” “usually working harm, with or without malignant intent, to mortals with whom she might be thrown into relation” [Century Dictionary]; mid-14c., meremayde, literally “maid of the sea,” from Middle English mere “sea, lake” (see mere (n.1)) + maid.

      Old English had equivalent merewif “water-witch” (see wife), meremenn “mermaid, siren”

      (compare Middle Dutch meer-minne, Old High German meri-min), which became Middle English mere-min (c. 1200) and was shortened to mere “siren, mermaid” (early 13c.); the later mermaid might be a re-expansion of this. Tail-less in northern Europe; the fishy form is a medieval influence from the classical siren, and mermaids sometimes were said to lure sailors to destruction with song.

      Meer etymology

      Dutch word meer comes from Proto-Indo-European *mer-, Proto-Indo-European *mori-, and later Proto-Indo-European *móri (Sea.)

      Detailed word origin of meer

      *mer- Proto-Indo-European (ine-pro) die, to rub, pack, to shimmer, shine, to die

      *mori- Proto-Indo-European (ine-pro) marsh, lake, sea, sea

      *móri Proto-Indo-European (ine-pro) Sea.

      *mari Proto-Germanic (gem-pro) Lake, body of water. Sea, ocean.

      meri Old Dutch (odt)

      mēre Middle Dutch (dum)

      meer Dutch (nld) Lake.

      All the best, R Bateman

  9. mikea0831 Says:

    If anyone has thoughts I’d love to hear it

  10. chas1133 Says:

    It probably was taken from another building based on the year this one was built. There was a business uptown that used to have all things from demolitions around the boroughs. You could get virtually anything until the roof collapsed from all the various friezes the had

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