|photo by Alice Lum
In 1892 at the age of 19, a Polish cobbler, Israel Miller, arrived in New York City. The inventive shoemaker began fashioning shoes for theatrical productions and his designs caught the eye of producers and performers alike. Thespians and vaudevillians came to him for their personal footwear. Three years later the I. Miller shoe business was founded. His success grew and in 1911 he opened a small shop in the burgeoning theater district of Times Square.
Before long the shop at No. 1552 Broadway expanded into the adjacent 1554 Broadway. Upstairs showrooms were set up to display the unique products. As time passed, Miller’s shoes were noticed not only by the theater folks, but by fashionable ladies in general. Operating under the name I. Miller & Sons, the shoe store pampered its high-toned customers by offering chocolates to the potential customers.
|Her maid helps a lady of leisure choose her shoes in a 1921 ad -- The Evening World, October 25, 1921 (copyright expired)
By 1921 I. Miller had four stores in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn. There would be another dozen by the end of the decade. By 1926 Israel Miller was reportedly not only the most popular designer of women’s shoes in the country, but a major importer. The dizzying growth and success of the firm resulted in Israel Miller’s purchase of the old building on Broadway and 46th Street in 1926 where his shop had been for 15 years.
Miller hired Louis H. Freeland to transform the old brownstones into a modern, elegant headquarters and shoe store for his empire. The architect melded the two structures into a single, elegant European-inspired structure. Double-height arched openings at ground level supported a second series of two-story openings above. Expensive materials—marble, granite and bronze—reflected the high-end effect Miller sought.
But Israel Miller did not forget who was responsible for his immense success and equally large fortune. Beneath the cornice on the 46th Street side was carved “THE SHOW FOLKS SHOE SHOP DEDICATED TO BEAUTY IN FOOTWEAR” and four shallow niches separated the upper openings. Israel Miller had big plans for those recesses.
|photo by Alice Lum
As construction continued, the I. Miller & Sons stores initiated a contest “to determine the most popular actresses in various branches of the stage.” Customers voted on their favorite actresses in Musical Comedy, Opera, Motion Pictures and Drama. As a nod to Times Square and the people who had made him a success, Miller would fill the 46th Street niches with marble statues of the winning actresses.
On September 6, 1927, The New York Times announced the results. “A voting contest conducted by the I. Miller shoe stores to determine the most popular actresses…has resulted in the election of Ethel Barrymore to represent drama, Marilyn Miller to represent musical comedy, Rosa Ponselle to represent opera and Mary Pickford to represent motion pictures, it was announced yesterday.
“Full-length marble statues of these actresses will be made by A. Stirling Calder and placed in four golden niches in the new I. Miller Building, Broadway and Forty-sixth Street.” Calder had already decided on the roles the statues would depict. Barrymore would be sculpted as Ophelia, Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, Miller as Sunny and Rosa Ponselle as Leonora. The Times promised “The statues will be unveiled early next year.”
Alexander Stirling Calder had busied himself with garden and fountain sculptures; however he had recently designed monumental groups for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. His son, Alexander Calder, would go on to greater fame as the originator of the mobile.
Calder’s Art Deco-influenced statues would not be unveiled in 1928 as The New York Times hoped. It would be a full two years before they were unveiled and the delay, unfortunately, meant that Israel Miller would never see them installed. On August 12, 1929 he suffered a heart attack in the Paris hotel where he was staying and died instantly. By now the I. Miller & Sons shoe stores numbered 288 across the United States.
Two months later, on the afternoon of October 20, a crowd of 3,000 pushed into Times Square for the unveiling of the four marble statues which The New York Times said Miller had commissioned “in appreciation of the theatrical world, which gave him his start.” Mayor Jimmy Walker paid tribute to Miller in his address.
|Gold mosaics highlight the dramatic pose of Ethel Barrymore's statue -- photo by Alice Lum
Two of the entertainers depicted in marble were on hand to unveil their own statues—Marilyn Miller and Mary Pickford. Producer Daniel Frohman unveiled the statue of Ethel Barrymore; and stage and film actress Elsie Louise Ferguson did the honors for Rosa Ponselle. Other theatrical celebrities present were Gertrude Lawrence, Richard Herndon, Evelyn Herbert and R. H. Burnside.
|photo by Alice Lum
Although the shoe store would remain in the building for decades, the scope of its operation here quickly diminished. By 1937 Schupps Stores, Inc. operated a women’s apparel store from part of the building. Three years later the elegant façade felt its first brush with an electric billboard—what was becoming the icon of Times Square.
On September 19, 1940 The New York Times reported that “A new Times Square sign to advertise a whisky product of Browne Vintners, Inc., will shortly be erected at 1552 Broadway on the northwest corner of Forty-sixth Street…The installation, which is to be built in three parts, will utilize 100 miles of wire and 100,000 electrical contracts.”
In 1959 the space where women had shopped for leather pumps was a Howard Johnson Restaurant. Shortly before 7 p.m. on January 31 a cook tossed a steak on the griddle and flames raced up the grease duct to the roof. The fire quickly raged throughout the building intensifying to a five-alarm blaze. The billboards that made Times Square a tourist wonder now threatened the I. Miller Building’s existence.
“Huge billboards that cover the Broadway side of the burning building and those adjoining it made it almost impossible for firemen to carry on a frontal attack against the fire,” reported The New York Times the following day.
Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., said “What would have been an ordinary one-alarm fire developed into a five-alarmer because of these impediments which hampered the firemen in fighting the fire.”
The sidewalks quickly became ice-covered in the freezing temperatures and theatergoers crushed into Times Square to see the conflagration. “It was estimated that more than 25,000 persons had watched the blaze,” reported The Times.
When it was all over “A fire official said the building was a total loss,” said the newspaper.
But the exterior walls of the burned building were intact and, astoundingly, the four marble statues still stood gracefully in their niches. In 1978 the Riese family—owners of chain restaurants like Nathans, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell—purchased the building and installed a Fridays restaurant. Times Square had become gritty and litter-strewn and the I. Miller building was slathered in red-and-white striped advertising boards and awnings. On the 46th Street side the old marble statues sat neglected and deteriorating.
Although as the 20th century drew to a close the Riese corporation gave lip service to “cleaning up” the façade; the elegant I. Miller building continued to decline and the irreplaceable statues were allowed to degrade.
The four marble actresses found their knight on a white charger in the form of the clothing retailer Express. SL Green purchased the building in 2012 for $136.5 million with the Express stores taking three stories of the building.
|Bronzework, hidden for decades, reemerged -- photo by Alice Lum
A magnificent and careful restoration of the façade took months. The eroded statues were refurbished, the decimated marble and limestone were repaired and the bronze window frames—still intact but long buried under tacky advertisements and shopfronts were resurrected and reburnished.
Israel Miller’s shoe store, intended as a tribute to the theater people who had made him a success, once again shines. The improbable survival and even more improbably restoration of a Times Square landmark is, in the words of The New York Post “radiant.”
|photo by Alice Lum