New Yorkers are very familiar with signage in the Times Square area. However, many fail to notice one sign that following a recent renovation, has come back into view. It sits just below the cornice of the building at 1552 Broadway at the corner of 46th Street. Unlike the typical electronic and digital signs, this one is carved in stone. It reads: ‘THE SHOW FOLKS SHOE SHOP DEDICATED TO BEAUTY IN FOOTWEAR.”
This inscription refers to I. Miller Shoes, the business that opened in a brownstone at 1552 Broadway in 1911. Israel Miller, a shoemaker from Poland, had gained a following among vaudeville performers, who bought custom shoes from him for theatrical productions and later for their everyday wear. As his reputation grew so did his business. To accommodate his clientele, he expanded the space, moving into 1554 Broadway. In 1926, Miller commissioned architect Louis H. Friedland to remodel and unify the buildings. Friedland created a classical façade of limestone and polished marble that included a unique feature: four golden niches. In an interactive campaign that was way ahead of its time, Miller invited the public to choose whom to place in them: “Who are America’s four best-loved actresses? Glance at the vacant golden niches! Perhaps you can instantly picture your favorite in drama, comedy, opera and screen, whose statue you would like to see in each of these niches, looking out on, and being observed by, Broadway’s marvelous throngs!”
The winners were: for drama, Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia; for musical comedy, Marilyn Miller as Sunny; for opera Rosa Ponselle as Norma and for film, Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Marble statues of each of them were created by Alexander Stirling Calder, father of renowned modern sculptor Alexander Calder. (Calder was not the only artist to work with I. Miller. In the 1950’s Andy Warhol, working as a successful commercial artist, created illustrations for I. Miller advertising as well as many other fashion brands. He took the beauty Miller saw in shoes and made it art.)
By the turn of the century, the I. Miller building – and the statues themselves – fell into a state of neglect. Thoughtlessly placed signs and the onslaught of city soot and grime made it nearly impossible to appreciate the beauty that Miller celebrated. The four actresses, in particular, had been diminished by exposure to the elements. As part of a restoration by Tobin|Parnes, the statues were removed from the building in 2012 and sent to a studio in Maryland for intensive reconstruction.
Today the actresses Barrymore and Miller, Ponselle and Pickford are back in their rightful niches. Calder’s work stands out in the fully restored limestone façade, testimony to the beauty in sculpture, in architecture and – of course – in shoes.
– Lily Herzan, Ali Houston and Carol Cofone
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