The 40th St Philosophers

One of my favorites bits in Times Square can be found on West 40th Street between Broadway and 6th. It’s two blocks from the main Times Square action, and you can feel the frantic energy vanish as soon as you turn onto the street.

W40th Sculptures - 01

If you look closely at the building to the left, you’ll see are five sculpted figures, each with his own throne of sorts, deep in thought, legs dangling:

W40th Sculptures - 02

I have no clue who these people are, or are supposed to represent. But the detail work on them is really incredible.

W40th Sculptures - 03

The building is 119 West 40th Street and was built in 1915 – I’m having trouble finding anything more than that. I believe that each of them may be holding a different representation of humanity; for example, the man on the right seems to be holding a cog of some sort, perhaps representing industry?

W40th Sculptures - 04

Seriously, the craftsmanship is amazing. It looks like these guys could suddenly stand up and climb off the ledge through the adjacent windows. I think their shoes are my favorite part:

W40th Sculptures - 06

The two above have more neutral expressions, whereas the first two seem somewhat troubled:

W40th Sculptures - 07

W40th Sculptures - 08

I like to think of these guys as philosophers, sitting perched on a building south of Times Square and eternally pondering the mysteries of the universe. Perhaps they’ve figured out why someone would voluntarily wait 3 hours in line for a table at the Olive Garden.

-SCOUT

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23 comments

  1. See, it’s posts like this that make me love your blog! You take a street or building that I must’ve walked past a hundred times and show me something brand new that was there all along if I’d just looked a bit closer…

    You have a great eye!

  2. keep this up and half of NYC will be walking around with cameras and or high powered binoculars.

  3. what a find — i wonder what it would be like to work in an office with those guys sitting right outside the window.

  4. Early on in my summer 2004 stay in New York, I ate at the Olive Garden in Times Square. My after-the-fact excuse? They had free refills of freshly brewed iced tea — something rather uncommon in my experiences in the city.

    That said, for the rest of that trip and thereafter, whenever I’ve found myself in the vicinity of Times Square, I often: stopped at Sapporo on 49th St and 7th Ave or grabbed a calzone in Bryant Park. (Bryant Park being my favorite place in Manhattan and Bryant Park Hotel being my favorite building.)

  5. These fellows are so real- I am compelled to wrap them in blankets and shawls- they are incredibly patient! Wonderful find! You are amazing! ALWAYS!

  6. I happen to work in those offices those pics….the sit on both sides of bldg-40th st and 41st st. We love them since we moved onto these floors and have always been jealous of those who have them directly outside their windows. FYI-they will be spotlighted soon to go with new lobby!

  7. Why do I keep counting six, not five, figures?

  8. Beautiful!!! I also recall seeing a similar display in a building farther east in that part of midtown. I don’t remember exactly but the characters there were taken either from Shakespeare or from the Robin Hood legends. Did I dream this?

  9. Hey, could you enabling e-mailing posts? Some of yours are so great that I just wanna share them w/ friends! This one is definitely one of them; I wonder how much something like this would cost to construct today or if the craftsmen still exist?

  10. This is a great site. Thank you for sharing your finds. And, um, how do I get a job as a film location scout? I see myself enjoying that a bit…though you summed it up nicely with “my bathroom has a view of a brick wall.”

  11. I just posted a photo of these guys on my Facebook asking if anyone knew who they were. I noticed the same things: the detailed work, the items they’re holding, the expressions, and the footwear! There’s also something about them that reminds me of Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations.

  12. I am an artist from Colorado, and I find this an intereting site to contrast mine. I am working on an old buildings and aboandon cars album at face book, see http://www.facebook.com/scottgreensemail. This is a beutiful contrast given the same country, keep up the nice work and I hope the landlords of yer properties nmaintain the stuff you show.

  13. Dear Scout…thank you! I was beginning to think I was the only one who noticed the “philosophers” on 119W40. btw, have you noticed that they occupy identical perches on the other end of the building on W41? You are right, it is not easy to learn more about them. There is a glaring omission, I think, in the otherwise comprehensive A.I.A. Guide to New York City Buildings. I even inquired in the lobby, but the very nice security/reception person was clueless. There’s got to be an answer out there, just out of our immediate reach. I am a licensed NYC Tour Guide, have pointed them out on tours, and now have a renewed interest in getting to the bottom of this. I will inquire of Christopher Gray. EVERYBODY should read his great column in the Sunday edition of The New York Times:
    “Streetscapes”. It is in the Real Estate section and is must reading for fans of NYC.
    I found your blog by googling 119W40…so at least finding your interesting site has been well worth the effort!
    Regards, Tom O.

  14. good find, they look really nice.

  15. I’ve done a painting of “the artist” figure. It was a great find and a great subject for a painting of a New York that often escapes notice.

  16. I’ve looked online and consulted 6 books about American architecture and 17 books about New York. I couldn’t find a single reference to these sculptures. Any book that makes any mention of the theater justly blightly skips over this street, dwelling on the nearby theaters, the library and Bryant Park.

    I tried sending an email to the building owner/president. I also sent an email to Cosmopolitan magazine; according to an old online archive, the printing department was located at the 119 West 40th Street address years ago, roundabout the time this building was built. I haven’t gotten answers back yet but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. (If these people can’t help, then I’ll have to do more digging.)

    • Hi, I actualy work in this building, some poeple had asked me about them and I fill ignorant by not knowing, since I work here I should know about them. I had allways liked them, but I never asked question about them, what I know is the building was built 1915 is a 22 stories landmark, if find out please let me know, thaks.

  17. I was just walking down that block this morning. I’ve been down it many times, as I’ve worked on 40th & B’way for 7 years. I just noticed the figures this morning & took a picture. I went back down that route to pick up lunch just now, noted the street address and googled.

    I was hoping to find out who the people are supposed to be as well. Amazing!

  18. Don’t know if you’re still interested, but I just stumbled upon an interesting old ad looking for boys to work at this address for a company called E. L. Gilbert…maybe from the 30s? Will send it your way, if you like.

  19. They are allegorical figures. Learning is reading a book, Industry holds a gear, etc.

  20. Googling around turned up more info at Daytonian in Manhattan and Ephemeral New York. Originally there were (still are?) 12 allegorical figures on this building, 6 overlooking each street. Thrift holds a beehive, Exploration has a globe. I wonder what the other virtues are supposed to be.

  21. These statues fascinate me because their clothing may be medieval, but their symbolism is thoroughly business-modern. If they were classical virtues, they would be Fortitude, Hope, etc., but these are like something out of a tycoon’s memoir: Thrift, Exploration, Industry, Learning… The theme suits the building, which was completed in 1915 and originally owned by a German immigrant who became rich. Maybe the statues really were a sort of memoir. Or maybe he told the architect, “Eh, put something nice at about this level, and I want it to look German.”

    Does anybody have pictures and identification for all of them?

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