Statues of Leading Ladies Ethel Barrymore, Marilyn Miller, Mary Pickford and Rosa Ponselle Restored in Times Square

By Robert Simonson
15 Feb 2014

The work of restoring the artworks was assigned to Conservation Solutions Inc., a Maryland-based firm. Such tasks are fairly common for the firm, said Daniel Lane, CSI's vice-president of operations, and a conservator.

"The first thing we did was assess them prior to removal," he explained. "I actually got on a lift on the sidewalk there and assessed the condition of them. We found that two were so deteriorated that they had cracked in half." The cracks were at the knees of the Miller and Pickford figures, the two statues that have separate legs, as opposed to a flowing dress.

Before the statues were taken down, they were wrapped in plastic and then in plaster of Paris. Once at the Maryland studio, they were put on their sides, and each was pinned with stainless steel threaded rods to keep the figures intact. The statues were then consolidated to bring the crystals of the marble back together in tight formation and gently cleaned with water and brushes before being consolidated again. Finally, the figures were patched where patching was needed and their faces were remodeled.

To do the remodeling, CSI searched out original source materials. "We did some online research and we found the original drawings or photos that the statues were based on," said Lane, "with their costumes on."

The process took approximately four months. CSI was also responsible for restoring the niches the statues stood in, which were backed with gold-leaf-backed mosaic tiles. "It just needed a good cleaning," said Lane.

The I. Miller building is one of the oldest non-theatre structures facing Times Square, and the entire restoration now makes it one of the best preserved.

The statues were originally executed by Alexander Calder, a noted artist of his day, whose works include the statue of Washington on the north side of the Washington Square Arch. (Today, he is best remembered as the father of mobile artist Alexander Calder.)

The four actresses were actually not Miller's own choices, but selected by the public, who were asked to choose one each from the fields of drama, comedy, opera and screen to honor. All four were remembered for performances that were then fresh in the public's memory: Barrymore played Ophelia in Hamlet in 1925 on Broadway, Marilyn Miller starred in Sunny in 1925, Pickford starred as Little Lord Faunleroy in a 1921 film and Rosa Ponselle portrayed Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927.