More than 50 years since they were removed at the behest of New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses, two allegorical statues of “Miss Brooklyn” and “Miss Manhattan” have returned to the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge. Located at the intersection of the Flatbush Avenue Extension and Tillary Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the once-lost ladies are part of a new permanent sculpture by Brian Tolle. However, they’re not as statically regal as when they debuted in November of 1916; now they are spinning slowly on an over 24-foot-tall pedestal, colored the same low blue as the steel on the bridge. And at night, they’re lit from within, the illumination giving their cast white acrylic bodies a bright glow.
The commission from the Percent for Art and New York City Economic Development Corporation was unveiled in December. The work follows public projects from Tolle like the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, although this sculpture is definitely a bit more on the whimsical site, and perhaps a tad cheesy, with its kinetic motion. The casting also doesn’t have the shadowy detail of the 20-ton granite originals, which are now outside the Brooklyn Museum. Nevertheless, it does add some much-needed visual play to this chaotic gateway to Brooklyn, where streams of traffic move relentlessly in either direction.
It wasn’t always so hectic here. The originals, by the famed Daniel Chester French who is best-known for his Abraham Lincoln colossus presiding over the Lincoln Memorial, were situated in a broad plaza. While not quite as elegant as the arch and colonnade on the Manhattan side (which still stands), the plaza was part of the “City Beautiful” movement that treated infrastructure like art. In a 1915 story in the New York Times ahead of their installation, it was noted that the statues were “to produce an impression of strength and dignity.”
On one side of the plaza, “Miss Manhattan” sat with her chin raised, a symbolic chest of wealth beneath one foot. A proud peacock stood at her left, and a classical sculpted torso at her right, an anchor behind her back suggesting waterfront commerce. “Miss Brooklyn,” meanwhile, was softer, her neck tilted, a child reading at her feet near a burst of foliage, a church in miniature on the opposite side, and laurels resting on her head. French is said to have used Audrey Munson as the model for both. As previously covered on Hyperallergic, Munson was a popular Gilded Age model, nicknamed the “American Venus,” who also appears in Adolph Alexander Weinman’s “Descending Night,” and Alexander Stirling Calder’s “Star Maiden.” She later fell into obscurity and died nearly forgotten in a mental institution in 1996.
By 1961, the fate of the two Manhattan Bridge sculptures was in limbo. A New York Times article proclaimed : “Progress Taking a Sledge to Bridge Art Here,” citing Robert Moses’s application for the destruction of this “ornamental and architectural masonry.” Yet they found a new home at the Brooklyn Museum, installed there in 1964 on eight-foot stone pedestals. While Moses saw the statues as obstructions, Tolle’s giant beacon is safely above the cars. Pedestrians can view the work from the sidewalk or traffic median, and drivers will see it at a distance, the ghostly pair twisting gently as if responding to the ebb and flow of traffic below.
Brian Tolle’s “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” are installed at Flatbush Avenue Extension and Tillary Street, Downtown Brooklyn.