Charles Tiffany, during the midst of America’s first great depression, opened his first small store across from City Hall in 1837. His business thrived and ten years later he moved across the street to 271 Broadway. By 1853 Tiffany & Co. had established itself as a leader in the quality jewelry trade and Tiffany built an impressive new building at 550 Broadway. Feeling that the façade was “monotonous,” he commissioned his good friend Henry Frederick Metzler to carve a 9-foot tall figure of Atlas to be situated over the entrace, holding a clock, four feet in diameter.
Metzler was a carver of ships' figureheads, or “bow portraits.” The bearded, lanky figure was a distinct departure from the hulking, muscular Atlases produced by most contemporary artists. Naked except for a crossed leather strap, Metzler’s Atlas does not bend under his burden, but stands upright and dignified. The left foot is poised to take a step off the statue’s base.
|The Atlas Clock over the entrance to Tiffany & Co. 550 Broadway in the 1850s (photo from flickr.com/photos/curbed/4030180010)
Seventeen years later, in 1870, Tiffany & Co. followed the uptown movement of the retail establishments and opened a grand new store on Union Square. With the move came the clock, which was installed directly over the main entrance in a window opening.
|Atlas Clock over the doorway of the Union Square Tiffany & Co. store - NYPL Collection
|The Tiffany & Co. clock on the third floor of Stanford White's momumental marble Italian Renaissance store 401 5th Ave. - NYPL Collection
The uptown odyssey was not yet over for Atlas. On September 7, 1940 a The New York Times headline read “Tiffany’s Atlas Moved; Clock Mounted on Wood Figure is Place on New Home.” Tiffany & Co. had built its next flagship store, a sleek modern structure at 727 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 57th Street. According to Tiffany & Co., “The limestone, granite and marble façade is free of ornamentation, except for the famous Atlas clock.”
|The Atlas Clock in its present location at Tiffany & Co.'s 5th Avenue and 57th Street building, ca 1940 - NYPL Collection
After more than a century and a half, Henry Frederick Metzler’s functional sculpture remains a fixture on Fifth Avenue and a priceless symbol of a firm. Amazingly, the mid-Victorian design is comfortably compatible with the streamlined façade on which it rests.