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Endangered Species: A conversation with "The Gargoyle Hunters" author John Freeman Gill

The novel "is informed by both my emotional connection to the lost city, and by everything I learned about architectural history and historic preservation as a journalist."

By ArchNewsNow
March 16, 2017

The Gargoyle Hunters is a tale told in the first person by a young teen growing up in 1970s New York City. His world includes an eccentric mother, and an estranged father with an obsession for collecting stone carvings and terra-cotta castings – including gargoyles – from old New York buildings. First-time novelist and native New Yorker John Freeman Gill knows whereof he speaks. He is currently the architecture and real estate editor of Avenue magazine, for which he writes “Edifice Complex,” a monthly column exploring the biographies of historic New York City buildings. A former New York Times contributor, his work has been anthologized in The New York Times Book of New York and More New York Stories: The Best of the City Section of The New York Times.


It is no wonder that the city is as essential to the story as any of the human characters. Gill brings them all to life with eloquence and affection. Here, he talks about what inspired him (including his mother, the “rubble rouser”), why he set the story in New York in the 1970s, and art dealer Ivan Karp, founder of the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society, who “regaled” Gill “with tales of gargoyle hunting” – and the importance of taking time to look up.


What is a gargoyle hunter?


John Freeman Gill: The novel’s title is drawn from a 1962 feature article, “Gargoyle Hunting in New York,” that appeared on the cover of the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine. A gargoyle is technically a spout, carved or shaped in the form of a grotesque animal or human, that directs rainwater away from the side of a building. But the Herald Tribune article used the term “gargoyle” more generally to refer to all manner of exuberantly expressive stone carvings and terra-cotta castings – of humans and gods and mythological beasts – that routinely adorned New York City buildings put up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


In that era, gifted immigrant stone carvers poured into New York from Europe, incising their imaginations into our skyline, and turning our streetscape into a marvelously quirky public art gallery. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, however, a period of sweeping urban renewal, thousands of New York buildings were smashed to rubble, forever changing the face of the city and consigning to landfills thousands of those late-Victorian and Beaux Arts sculptures. Gargoyles became an endangered species. Cherubs and satyrs, gryphons and sea monsters, goddesses and kings – all were threatened with extinction.


Most New Yorkers at the time failed to appreciate the scope or significance of what was being lost. But a handful did. These enterprising scavengers haunted demolition sites, rescuing hundreds of architectural sculptures for posterity. They became known as gargoyle hunters, although some preferred to call themselves rubble rousers. My mother was a gargoyle hunter – she had a restless eye for beauty – so as a child I lived among numerous salvaged fragments of the lost city. Needless to say, they exercised a great hold on my imagination.

K N O P F Q & A

To what do you attribute your fascination with lost New York and with the city’s relentlessly changing streetscape?


JFG: My mother is a native New Yorker and artist who has spent the last 60 years painting street scenes of city buildings just before they are demolished. (And, in fact, she has put together a marvelous book of her paintings, along with lively text, that her agent is just now submitting to publishers.) Throughout my childhood, the razed landmarks of old New York were alive and well on the walls of our home: the 57th Street Automat served up cheesecake in the kitchen; the windows of the Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller displayed haute couture dresses in my mom’s bedroom; subway trains hurtled along the Third Avenue el in our front hall. It was fairly inevitable that I was going to inherit her love of the city.


Later, when I began writing for The New York Times, I gravitated toward stories about historic preservation and the evolving cityscape. The Gargoyle Hunters is informed by both my emotional connection to the lost city, and by everything I learned about architectural history and historic preservation as a journalist.


What about 1970s New York inspired you to set your novel during that time period?


JFG: The vividly crumbling, graffiti-tagged New York of the 1970s is the city of my childhood. It was a time when pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down got stolen. At one point, a bronze statue of a major Gilded Age architect was swiped right off its pedestal in Central Park! We kids, meanwhile, learned never to leave home without carrying “mug money,” two or three dollars you could hand over to muggers so they wouldn’t beat the crap out of you. Despite all that menace, however, the city had a magic to it. For those of us who grew up here at that time, New York was alive in the 1970s in a way that seems so much more vibrant and spontaneous than the buffed and scrubbed, corporatized and tourist-ready city of the 21st century. 1970s New York, for all its unruliness, was a city of ferment and possibility. Today’s New York is a city of luxury condos.


Part of this sentiment is nostalgia, certainly – and there’s no honest way to romanticize the crime and mayhem of the 1970s – but it’s equally true that the unpredictability of the city in those years, and the proliferation of mom-and-pop shops and artists and street-corner characters, gave rise to so much more adventure and excitement than today’s safer, more predictable city. For a storyteller, a town of disorder and uncertainty is a marvelous environment in which to set one’s characters loose.


Beyond the temper of the times, however, there was a very specific reason why the novel had to be set during this period. The narrative is built in large part around a bizarre architectural heist that stunned the city and made the front page of The New York Times in 1974: the brazen, seemingly impossible theft of an entire historic Manhattan building.


What kind of research did you do for this novel?


JFG: The novel is equally a work of imagination and rigorous research. My vision for the story always involved some rather heightened, almost larger-than-life events, but as a native New Yorker and a journalist, I felt it was important to anchor my flights of fancy in the gritty, nuts-and-bolts world of 1970s New York architectural salvage. I went straight to the source, interviewing several passionate gargoyle wranglers who roamed the city’s demolition sites in the 1960s and ’70s, rescuing countless gorgeous fragments of New Yorkers’ architectural patrimony.


Probably the most important source was Ivan Karp, founder of a group called the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society, which spared some 1,500 stone carvings and terra-cotta castings from landfill. Karp, a famous art dealer who discovered Andy Warhol and pioneered the SoHo gallery district in 1969, was a charismatic impresario of salvage who regaled me with tales of gargoyle hunting, and guided me through his rich collection, imparting not only inside information, but his own intimate relationship with the rescued artworks. From speaking with him and others, I learned so much that I wrote a feature about gargoyle hunting for The Atlantic [“Ghosts of New York”]. Karp has since died, so this novel is enlivened with colorful arcana and insights that would have been lost had I not sought him out in his final years.


Even more fun than the interviews, though, was the hands-on research. The book deals not only with gargoyles, but with the construction and demolition of 19th-century cast-iron buildings in TriBeCa and SoHo. For me to write about these things convincingly, in the first person, it was never going to be enough to view the gargoyles or the iron ornamentation from afar. So I scrambled up wobbly, 30-foot scaffolds with current-day salvagers to observe exactly how terra-cotta gargoyles were installed in – and extracted from – 19th-century buildings. I befriended a group of cast-iron restorers and clambered up the side of a TriBeCa landmark building to learn the intricacies of how an 1881 cast-iron façade was dismantled. And then I dove into the archives to find historic accounts and diagrams of these processes.


Early on in the novel, Griffin’s father laments that New Yorkers never take the time to look up at the city around them. Why was this an important thread for you to include in the book?


JFG: Because it’s true. From its inception, New York has always been a city of bustle and trade and transaction. Most New Yorkers – and certainly the vast majority of commuters who race into and out of town every weekday for work – are so busy charging ahead to the next place they have to be that they rarely take the time to slow down and appreciate the architectural riches all around them. The advent of the smart phone, which allows us to further absent ourselves from our immediate surroundings, has only exacerbated the situation.

K N O P F Q & A

In 2005, while I was writing for The New York Times, I looked up one day from Park Row and noticed that the famous green oxidized copper roof of the Woolworth Building had gone mysteriously white! To me it was no less jarring than if the Statue of Liberty had suddenly gotten a white dye job while no one was looking. But when I interviewed area workers and residents, virtually none of them had noticed the change. A student at Pace University, right across City Hall Park from the Woolworth, said to me, somewhat eye-rollingly, “Well, it’s not like I, um, look up all the time.”


In addition to his obsession with preserving New York City’s architectural wonders, Griffin’s father also seems to have a bit of a “hoarding” mentality. As Zev, his right-hand man, says, “It’s a funny thing about collecting. It starts out as love, but it becomes something much more grasping and corrosive.” Do you agree? And where does nostalgia fit into all of this?


JFG: Many people begin collecting out of genuine love – for artworks, for beautifully crafted objects, for cultural artifacts that tell us something about our forebears and ourselves. Over time, however, that love can become transmogrified into an unhealthy obsession, a corrosive need that can never be satisfied. It’s like a man who enters a marriage with a genuine passion and admiration for his wife that gradually transforms into abusive possessiveness. But Griffin’s father is actually even more complicated than that. One way of looking at his endeavors is that he is trying to possess the past, seeking to arrest the passage of time by seizing the touchstones of lost New York. It’s a tantalizing fantasy, but of course it’s an impossibility.


The word “nostalgia” comes from the Ancient Greek “nostos,” or home. Nostalgia is, literally, a longing for home. Plenty of collectors have stable, satisfying home lives. But others, in my observation, are emotionally homeless. They are not at peace with their position in the world, so they relentlessly surround themselves with objects in an attempt to create, out of sheer accumulation, a place where they can finally feel at home.


The book includes so many great lines about New York City’s changing streetscape, such as: “This city has no memory, and after a time the skyline will sort of close up its wound until nobody even remembers anymore how much has been lost.” What is your personal reaction to New York’s constantly evolving skyline?


JFG: Pain, rue, fatalism, or wry acceptance, depending on the day. I have a deep reverence for the beauty of New York’s historic buildings. I adore the way you can feel the passage of time, feel the layering of the city’s earlier incarnations, as you walk its streets – the way the International Style is layered upon Art Deco is layered upon Beaux Arts. But I also recognize that change and vigor have always been essential components of New York’s distinctive character. So I don’t think it’s advisable to try to freeze the city in amber. The day New York stops growing and changing is the day it will cease to be New York. What’s wanted is a healthy tension between preservation and development.


We tend to think we’re the only generation of New Yorkers who are aghast at the destruction of our favorite buildings. But ’twas ever thus. As far back as 1856, a writer for Harper’s magazine bitterly denounced New York as “notoriously the largest and least-loved of any of our great cities.” Why should anyone love it, he grumbled, when “it is never the same city for a dozen years altogether?” There’s an element of astonished betrayal in those words that sounds awfully similar to what one hears nowadays.


What is your favorite New York City landmark and why?


JFG: Probably the Woolworth Building, Cass Gilbert’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, which was the tallest building in the world when it was put up in 1913. Gilbert really strove to “clothe it in beauty,” as he put it, to give the great city the great building it deserved. Like the Seagram Building, the iconic Modernist office tower on Park Avenue, I think the Woolworth is made more majestic by its location. Situated just across the street from City Hall Park, the Woolworth has lots of open space around it, which allows it to be seen to best advantage. To the west, the Woolworth’s private patch of sky has recently been rudely intruded upon by 30 Park Place, Larry Silverstein’s 82-story monument to obscene wealth. But somehow the Woolworth has managed to shake off this affront and maintain its aloof dignity.


One of the climactic sequences in The Gargoyle Hunters is set at the top of the Woolworth Building while it is undergoing restoration. To make sure the scene was fully convincing, even to someone who knew the Woolworth like the back of his hand, I interviewed at length, several times, a preservation architect and gargoyle wrangler who was on and off the scaffolding that surrounded the Woolworth Building for three years beginning in the 1970s. When I first contacted him, I asked if he had any snapshots from atop the Woolworth. “Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, “I happen to have a whole PowerPoint presentation showing step-by-step how we did the restoration, and I’d be happy to share it with you.” Then, as I was crafting my climactic scene, the architect actually walked my characters around the top of the Woolworth with me, giving me feedback on how Griffin and his father might realistically have approached their goal of sawing a gargoyle off the building’s pinnacle. Amazingly, it turned out that this architect actually owned one of the very gargoyles I had created my story around.


Do you have your own gargoyle collection?


JFG: I do! My apartment is full of urban flotsam, things like antique New York City street signs and a pair of blue seats from the loge level of Shea Stadium. I have a time-worn bearded limestone keystone from atop a Harlem doorway, and a glorious, colorful terra-cotta bracket from Coney Island. I recently bought a terra-cotta keystone of a beautiful goddess, who had adorned a Brooklyn tenement, but I left her in the back of my car and she was kidnapped when the car got stolen. I guess the guy who swiped my car is an inadvertent gargoyle hunter.



Note: The Gargoyle Hunters is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. It will be published on March 21st, and is available for pre-order at Amazon.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

“The Gargoyle Hunters,” Penguin Random House, March 21, 2017