Posts Tagged ‘Mermaid Medallion 23rd Street’

The mystery of the mermaid on East 23rd Street

July 28, 2022

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.