Skip to main content

Gargoyle Hunting in New York

John Freeman Gill writes about the changing streetscape of New York City with a focus on real estate, preservation, progress, and nostalgia. In his 2017 novel ‘The Gargoyle Hunters,' the author imagines an improbable heist—stealing an entire building before its demolition—that's actually based on truth.

Released on 10/04/2017


[sirens wail]

[John] I actually think the audio is fantastic for this.

You can't make it up,

it's like a clique of what the city sounds like.

Look at these guys.

So I lived here for five or six years

then went to college and came back on vacation

for another four years,

two blocks from here

and I've never noticed these til today.

Most of us don't take the time to look up.

[soft, jazz music]

My name is John Freeman Gill

and I have mostly written about

the changing street-scape of New York City.

'The Gargoyle Hunters' is a novel I recently wrote.

It takes place in 1974/1975 New York,

a period really in the financial crisis of New York

where pretty much everything in the city

that wasn't nailed down was being stolen.

The title of my novel 'The Gargoyle Hunters',

is taken from a 1962

New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine story,

all these really beautiful sculptures

that had been put on buildings

by immigrant artisans in the late 19th

and early 20th century,

these were being destroyed wholesale

for urban renewal.

A number of enterprising scavengers with an eye for beauty

recognized the city's architectural patrimony

was largely being lost

so they would lead clandestine raids

on a demolition site

and sneak into beautiful buildings

that were about to be destroyed

and rescue the architectural sculptures,

the gargoyles, right off the face of the building.

There's a scene at the top of the Woolworth Building

where this obsessive, manic father upsends this poor boy

out in the middle of the night to the edge

of the Woolworth Building,

hanging off of the tower with a power saw,

to saw the last remaining gargoyle off of a tower.

I come from a family of scavengers,

in 1940 my grandfather, my mother's father,

was walking along Fifth Avenue during World War Two,

one of these Fifth Avenue mansions was being destroyed

and right up the stairs was

an extraordinary stained glass window

of Queen Elizabeth holding a ball and scepter,

and the workmen were just about to smash it up

to make a few bucks selling the lead

and my grandfather ran up, he said to the foreman,

I'll give you 10 for you, 10 dollars for you

and 10 dollars for your workmen

if you can help me take this home,

and he took one of the doors from the demolition site

and somehow they got it home.

My mother still has this here in this apartment.

In my life, my mother was the one

who rescued all kinds of objet

that are here in this house.

She used to wheel my older sisters stroller

along Third Avenue and she would literally oust my sister

from her stroller to rescue a gargoyle keystone,

she would actually put in the stroller

and muscle it home that way.

That one was rescued from Brooklyn.

This was at the top of a column.

This piece was designed to cover the joint.

You've probably had this in your bedroom for decades.

The 80s, sometime in the 80s.

You can do the Eagle Lady

but the painting is out in the hall there.

There were two of them at the top of tenements, 26th Street.

Wreckers though it was really heavy,

and was brownstone

but they arranged to bring it down.

I was blonde and young then.

They were gonna save both of them.

When I came back two days later, they said

We found that it wasn't brownstone

and so we just trashed it.

I was gonna give one to the Brooklyn Museum

and like that joke about the little boy

who had two nickels,

one for candy and one for the religious box,

one nickel dropped and he said,

There goes God's nickel. [chuckles]

[grunts] There used to be another building

with another Eagle Lady

on the top

and what was so wonderful in those days

is you could see the Empire State Building from everywhere.

Now I hated sitting in the park

with the other mothers discussing children

and so I would be walking the neighborhood.

I had my eye on buildings in advance.

I would just stake out what was about to come down.

[light, mysterious piano music]

[John] Starting in about 1954,

my mother began painting scenes of buildings

that were just about to be destroyed.

It was her way of memorializing.

[Jill] We have lost casualness for one thing

and jagged skylines

and sky, most of all.

We're looking at Museum of Modern Art

with the two Philip Johnson additions

and various famous mansions

originally and they were torn down for Museum Tower,

more sky being lost.

[mysterious, sorrowful piano music]

It's a lost world and it's changing.

In many cases it should change,

I am associated with a lot of preservation groups

but I'm not a strict preservationist as they are,

I just think this past should be respected

and remembered and what I'm doing are preserving blocks

that weren't worthy of being landmarked

which I don't think anybody else is doing.

I think the buildings in New York City are touchstones of

personal and shared experience.

What happens in New York is that just as soon

as that happens, the building's torn down

and you lose this touchstone to your past

and I think a lot of New Yorkers find that very painful.

Those of us who revere historic buildings

often lament when old things are torn down

and we should do that

and it's important to have a preservation movement

but I would never want everything to be preserved

or landmarked.

New York City has always been about change

and transformation and growth,

and the moment that New York City stops changing

and growing it's no longer going to be New York City.

[slow, jazz music]

These guys, these guys are really unusual.

You know, they're not terribly intricate sculpture

but look at the funny little faces on the top.

The street-scape of New York has different eras

jostling up against each other.

More you learn about buildings, the more you can feel time

and really see time on the street around you.