Surrogate's Court

Surrogate's Court

City Beautiful Movement (part 2)

(See also part 1 and part 3)

Sculpture produced during the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s to 1910s aimed to improve passers-by. The Pulitzer Memorial Fountain was intended to elevate them by its beauty. The Surrogate's Court was meant to edify viewers by showing historical figures who were worthy of emulation, and the values and technical achievements that would bring future progress.

Herewith, a list of sculptures on the Surrogate's Court, as identified in the indispensable Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture (Gayle & Cohen), with brief comments from the equally indispensable Encyclopedia of New York City.

South Facade

Facing Chambers St., best viewed from the plaza east of City Hall

Flanking the main entrance

NY Infancy

NY Revolutionary

On the cornice above the fifth floor

All by Philip Martiny.

On the roof

By Henry Kirke Bush-Brown; moving from lower to upper figures

East Facade, facing Centre St.

Cornice: all female figures, swathed in classical drapery, by Philip Martiny

Originally flanking the east entrance

East facade, dormer

Recorder and Keeper of Rolls (referring to the building's original function as Hall of Records), by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown

North Facade, facing Reade St.

Cornice figures, by Philip Martiny

North facade, around the central window on the attic roof

by Bush-Brown

West facade, facing Elk St.

by Bush-Brown

Surrogate's Court sculptures as didactic art

Alas, the Surrogate's Court sculptures fail miserably in their didactic purpose. They're too high and there are far too many of them for the viewer to make sense of the message of the whole. Particularly disruptive is the elaborate drapery on the allegorical cornice figures on the east and north sides, which makes it almost impossible to see the attributes (the gizmos, the props) that should allow the viewer to identify each figure.

The sculptors can't be blamed for the fact that later, taller buildings overshadow some of the sculpture on the Surrogate's Court. They can be blamed for not noticing that Lower Manhattan's streets are narrow, and that its buildings were becoming ever taller. The earliest skyscrapers began to appear in the 1870s or 1880s, three or four decades before the Surrogate's Court was completed.

Further Reading