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April 02, 2017, 07:17 PM

Gargoyle hunters

By Shirley Kay

Woolworth Building [photo cc Michael Daddino, cropped

New York, USA - Historic Manhattan in the seventies is the setting for a new novel by John Freeman Gill centred around gargoyles. Gill had been writing about New York architecture and real estate in The New York Times, Atlantic and Avenue magazine but had long been fascinated by the story of these 19th century architectural sculptures. So he temporally gave up his day job to concentrate on writing a novel. This has proved worthwhile as the book has been received with fab reviews.

The Gothic Revival period had led to a demand for craftspeople to carve the gargoyles and grotesques used to decorate buildings at the time. These poorly paid skilled immigrants had come to New York from England, France, Germany and Italy. The novel highlights the complete lack of interest in these carvings during the 1970s. One restoration project on the famous Woolworth building had stripped and replaced thirty two terracotta gargoyles with aluminium siding. In the novel a father and son bond saving the past by theft of these gargoyles and other architectural elements in seventies New York. Thirteen year old, Griffin's journey to discover the destructive force of his father's obsession and how to salvage his own life makes a fascinating read.

However true life is often stranger than fiction. Gill had previously written about the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society who armed with crowbars and maybe a small bribe or two had rescued around one thousand New York City artifacts from destruction. The group was named by Ivan Karp, later to become an art dealer pivotal in pop art and the careers of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. His passion to save these sculptures from New York as homage to the immigrant artisans who carved them began in 1950 Brooklyn. A discarded terracotta cherub head was just left on the sidewalk from a demolition site and he realised that New York buildings were being demolished without any attempt to save their artworks.

The group decided to save and later donate a large number to the Brooklyn Museum. In 1966 a sculpture garden displayed around two hundred the terracotta, ironwork and stone pieces including a roaring zinc lion. The sculpture park itself has since become a victim of a museum restoration project and many of these pieces of New York history have been sold. Luckliy Karp himself also decided to protect some of these beauties and in 1985 had founded the Anonymous Arts Museum, in the tiny hamlet of Charlotteville. Around one hundred and fifty artifacts are displayed along with local Charlotteville history. Karp the self described 'rubble rouser' died in 2012, aged eighty six.

The Gargoyle Hunters: A novel by John Freeman Gill
Published by Knopf, March 21, 2017.
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio.

Plus for those interested to see more of those that survived the wrecking ball grab your binoculars and do the Gargoyles in Manhattan walking tour. Visit nycwalk dot com online for more information.

Woolworth Building

John Freeman Gill : The Gargoyle Hunters: A novel by John Freeman Gill
The Atlantic: Ghosts of New York

Story Type:  Feature

ID: 99621

Date Modified: April 03, 2017, 10:23 AM

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