This essay is adapted from Chapter 26 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book, all of which will eventually be updated and posted on this site. Click on “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan book” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see which are already here.
- Glory of Commerce, also known as Progress with Mental and Physical Force or Transportation
- Sculptor: Jules-Felix Coutan
- Dedicated: 1914
- Medium and size: Limestone, overall 50 x 60 feet; Mercury is 28 feet tall
- Location: Grand Central Terminal, roof of south facade, 42nd Street and Park Avenue. Subway: 4, 5, 6 to Grand Central – 42nd Street
About the sculpture
Did you ever wonder what these figures are doing atop a twentieth-century railroad station? The figure at the center is Mercury (Hermes), recognizable by his winged hat and caduceus. From his role as messenger to the gods, he became identified with travel, commerce, business and wealth.
Looking up at Mercury from our left is an older, muscular man, stripped for action and grasping a hammer. Surrounding him are an anchor, a cogwheel, an anvil and a beehive, representing the technology by which man has conquered the earth and seas.
On Mercury’s other side, an elegantly dressed woman, Athena, is intent on a long scroll; she holds a quill pen in her right hand, as if about to make notes. Behind her is a globe. This woman represents intellectual endeavors, as the man opposite represents physical ones. And the result? On either side of the clock, two cornucopias overflow with produce.
We can say, therefore, that the sculpture as a whole represents business supported by physical and mental effort. So logical is this idea that it’s a shock to see, in an early drawing, that Coutan had mirror images of the man and the mechanical devices on left and right. The woman didn’t appear.
The sculptor not only shows that business requires both physical and mental effort; he seems to consider business in a positive light. Mercury is handsome, physically strong and healthy, and rising upward—not bowed by cares or hunched over, scheming like Scrooge. Hercules looks up to him; Minerva is relaxed in his presence.
An American eagle nuzzles Mercury’s knee, suggesting that business is compatible with patriotism and the nation’s welfare. This complex message – that successful, thriving business requires physical and mental effort – is the sort of abstract theme that only top-notch allegorical figures seem able to convey.
And by the way … this is the scale of Glory of Commerce. When completed, it was the largest sculptural group in the world.
About the subject
Today far fewer travelers respond to Mercury’s beckoning hand, but for some, no other mode of transportation inspires Wanderlust as intensely as railroads:
There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take
No matter where it’s going. (Whole poem at end of post.)
Few places evoke the excitement of the great era of railroads as does Grand Central Terminal. Not only is it a beautiful space, it’s a magnificent engineering accomplishment.
Vanderbilt’s 1871 Grand Central Depot (see Chapter 25) was a tangle of platforms and tracks through which commuters, long-distance travelers, freight and mail swarmed helter-skelter. For fascinating details, anecdotes, and images on the Depot, see this post by Daytonian in Manhattan.
The Depot’s successor, Grand Central Terminal, was by comparison a marvel of efficiency. Passengers could descend from the street to the lower levels via gentle ramps: no stairs or elevators required. Baggage was handled separately. Commuters were segregated from long-distance travelers. Convenient transfers to New York’s new subway system were incorporated. Mail went directly to the neighboring Post Office, express freight by elevator to a separate building.
Perhaps the most remarkable engineering feat was the fact that from 1903 to 1912, while the Terminal was being constructed on the site of the Depot, trains continued to operate on regular schedules.
North of Grand Central, the exposed tracks that stretched from 42nd to 50th Streets and from Madison across to Lexington Avenues were electrified and buried. This made a huge area on Park Avenue north of 42nd Street available for commercial and residential development.
Income from “air rights” on this property was a significant source of revenue for the New York Central Railroad long after railroad traffic declined in the face of competition from automobiles and airplanes. In 1970, after the Pennsylvania Railroad had merged with the Central and gone spectacularly out of business in the largest corporate bankruptcy in United States history, the biggest asset remaining to the company was not its trains, tracks or buildings … but the air rights north of Grand Central Terminal. That income was a major reason that Grand Central wasn’t demolished as the original Pennsylvania Station was. (See Rea, Chapter 20, which I’ll post next week.)
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Travel” (1921)
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistles shrieking.
All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see its cinders red on the sky
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take
No matter where it’s going.
- Last month, my $10/month subscribers on Patreon received a sepia-toned JPG of Glory of Commerce with a quote from Ayn Rand on business, suitable for printing at 8 x 10 inches. To get yours, join me on Patreon.
- For more on railroads and steel, click the Railroads tag in the Obsessions cloud at right.
- Jules-Felix Coutan (1840-1931), a French Beaux-Arts sculptor, is best known for Armed France on the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris. Glory of Commerce is the only work by Coutan listed in the Smithsonian’s inventory of American sculpture (SIRIS), where it’s called Transportation. From 1911 to 1914, Coutan worked in his Paris studio on a clay maquette of this piece. Quarter-size plaster models were shipped to the United States, where the stones were carved with pneumatic steel chisels, cranes and other devices … in six weeks! More pics for scale and more on Coutan here.
- Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music – even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app). The supplementary page on ForgottenDelights.com is here.
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