Gargoyle Hunting in New York
Released on 10/04/2017
[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
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.
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