Writing

John Freeman Gill Chases Down the Architecture of 1970s NYC

Ornamental carvings at 116 East 68th Street, an apartment house in Manhattan. Photograph by John Freeman Gill.

Editor's Note:

John Freeman Gill is the author of the novel The Gargoyle Hunters. A native New Yorker, he is a former reporter for the New York Times City section. His writing has been anthologized in two New York Times books and has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, the International Herald Tribune, New York magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, three children, and a smattering of gargoyles.

Writing my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, was a process of discovery that required looking both inward and outward. Since I wear two hats as both fiction writer and journalist, it might be tempting to describe the realms of imagination and research as sharply distinct from one another, but the reality is much messier and more fun: the inner and outer worlds leak into each other all the time.

The Gargoyle Hunters is set in the city of my youth, the vividly crumbling, graffiti-tagged New York City of the 1970s. Told in the first person, the novel follows 13-year-old Griffin Watts, a precocious innocent, as he is recruited into his estranged father’s illicit and dangerous architectural salvage business. Small and nimble, Griffin is tasked with climbing around the tops of tenements and skyscrapers to steal their gorgeous 19th-century architectural sculptures. Griffin’s father, concealing the true reasons behind these urban Indiana Jones–like escapades, tells him that the stolen sculptures are all being sold to support the heavily mortgaged brownstone where Griffin lives with his sister and mother.

I grew up in the very house where the book is set, and my interest in New York’s intricate stone carvings and terra-cotta castings can be traced to that childhood home, which was crammed with carved keystones, stained-glass windows, and decorative ironwork my artist mother had salvaged from Manhattan buildings under demolition. But the novel is not especially autobiographical, and my aim for the book was two-fold: I wanted to tell both a small, intimate story of fathers and sons, and a big story of New York’s near death in 1975, when the city nearly went bankrupt.

As a child of divorce, I was well situated to dig inside myself for the emotional heart of Griffin’s family story. As for the larger story of New York’s financial crisis and the 19th-century architectural sculptures that were threatened with extinction in the 1970s, I simply didn’t know enough when I sat down to write this book.

Fortunately, I had picked up the tools of journalism while reporting for The New York Times City section, and so I began to explore the subject of my novel, collecting information and insights that could give my story needed texture.

My vision for the book always involved some rather heightened, almost-larger-than-life events, but as a native New Yorker and a reporter I felt it was important to anchor these 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 beautiful 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 saved some 1,500 stone carvings and terra-cotta castings from the wrecking ball. Karp, a famous art dealer who discovered Andy Warhol and pioneered New York’s SoHo gallery district in 1969, was a charismatic impresario of salvage. He regaled me with tales of gargoyle hunting and guided me through his rich collection, imparting not only inside information but also his own intimate relationship with the rescued artworks. Karp has since died, so my novel is enlivened with colorful arcana 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 also with the construction and demolition of 19th-century cast-iron buildings in TriBeCa and SoHo. For me to write about these things convincingly, 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.

Ultimately, I set a climactic scene at the top of the Woolworth Building, a neo-Gothic 1913 skyscraper that was once the tallest structure in the world. The vertiginous sequence I had in mind involved Griffin’s being sent by his obsessive, manic father to hang off the building’s roof with a power saw — 55 stories above Broadway — while severing a prized gargoyle. To give the sequence verisimilitude, I felt it was crucial to learn as much as I could about the ornaments and layout of the Woolworth Building’s cloudscraping tower. So I tracked down a preservation architect named Timothy Allanbrook, who had worked on a massive 1970s project to restore the Woolworth’s precious terra cotta. I wasn’t sure how much I could learn. My fantasy was that Tim might still have, tucked in a shoebox somewhere, one or two snapshots of the Woolworth’s roof in the 1970s. I knew it was a long shot, but I took a deep breath and put the question to him: did he still have any old photos of the Woolworth’s crown under restoration?

His answer nearly knocked me out of my chair. “As a matter of fact, John,” he said, “I happen to have an entire PowerPoint presentation of how we did the Woolworth restoration. It’s loaded with photos, and I’d be happy to share it with you.”

On that day, it’s fair to say, I was the happiest novelist in the world.