The British Empire Building (620 Fifth Avenue) and its twin, La Maison Francaise, located on the corner of 49th were built in 1933. To link the two buildings, the architects designed a narrow area, 200-foot promenade between two buildings that leads from 5th Avenue to Rockefeller Center.
The promenade was named Channel Gardens, because of the English Channel ( or in French: la Manche) than separates England from France. At the beginning New Yorkers constantly congregated in the Channel Gardens, as something new was always happening. In 1941 Rockefeller Center transformed its promenade overnight, transplanting crab-apple trees in full fruit and over 2000 red, bronze and yellow chrysanthemum blooms in celebration of their autumn festival.
The Channel Gardens has six pools with fountains. During the winter, the Channel Gardens' fountains are shut off and are decorated with Valerie Clarebout's sculptures of angels. Each pool has a large fountainhead sculpture, designed by Rene Paul Chambellan.
Chambellan was born in West Hoboken, New Jersey and spent the first part of his life in and around New York City. While serving with the Army Corps of Engineers in World War I as a sergeant he endured a gas attack but survived with wounds to lungs. After the war Chambellan studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His most productive period lasted from 1922 to 1939. His sculptures grace more than 30 buildings in New York. Chambellan worked closely with Raymond Hood, the architect of the Rockefeller Center.
Unlike most architects Hood implemented his vision not through progressive iterations of sketches but from small-scale models. And among Hood's generation of Architects Chambellan was cherished for his models.
Chambellan created these six 33" by 26" by 47" sculptures from the Channel Gardens that were cast at the Roman Bronze Works and installed in 1935.
Three female figures are Nereids and three male figures are Tritons. The Nereids were sea nymphs in Greek mythology, fifty in total, daughters of Nereus and Doris. Their name simply means, Children of Nereu. They helped sailors on their voyages when they faced fierce storms. The oldest mention of the Nereids comes from Plato, a philosopher in Classical Greece and the founder of the Academy in Athens. When Plato was describing the Temple of Poseidon on the central island of Atlantis, he said that there was a golden statue of Poseidon with one hundred sculptured Nereids riding dolphins around the base of the statue.
The actual idea of a race of tritons actually came from the Greek God, Triton, who was said to be the son of Poseidon. Like his father, Triton carries a trident. However, Triton's special attribute was a twisted conch shell, on which he blew like a trumpet to calm or raise the waves. Its sound was so terrible, that when loudly blown, it put the giants to flight, who imagined it to be the roar of a mighty wild beast.
Each figure either one of Tritons or Nereids is depicted riding on the back of a sea creature and represents an attribute that has enabled mankind's progress (from Fifth Avenue towards the lower rink): Leadership, Will, Thought, Imagination, Energy, and Alertness.