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MIDTOWN GARGOYLES AND FIGURATIVE DECORATION

By Ben Goeke


While the title of this web site -- Medieval New York -- may seem to be a bit of a contradiction in terms, the connection between New York and gargoyles is definitely not. Outside of Europe, the buildings of New York City boast one of the largest collections of gothic-style gargoyles in the world. Gargoyles are so prevalent in New York that the plots to major motion pictures and television shows have periodically incorporated these grotesque stone sculptures into their respective plots. Remember the half-dog, half-beast gargoyle that broke away from its perch atop a midtown apartment to chase Rick Moranis around Manhattan in Ghostbusters. Or, on a more comical note, the rather lame weekly cartoon on UPN Channel 9 called Gargoyles, who's plot revolves around crime-fighting gargoyles protecting the citizens of New York.

Gargoyles originated in thirteenth-century France as a decorative way to channel water off the roofs of buildings. This original usage helps explain how gargoyles traditionally came to be perched high above viewers on the corners of buildings. Later gargoyles grew to have symbolic meaning, telling stories of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the coming apocalypse, and in time ceased to be mere conductors of rain water. These story telling sculptures helped convey symbolism to the illiterate townspeople of the time. Each sculpture was the brain child of an individual sculptor, who could use this medium to convey a political statement about a corrupt leader or explain his outlook on life through these grotesque creations. In a sense, gargoyles were the comic strips of the middle ages.

Exactly where New York fits into this whole picture in terms of the symbolism of gargoyles is kind of hazy. There is just something about new York architecture, its reliance on old rather than new forms, which lends itself to the usage of gargoyles. At the time when New York was expanding, around the turn of the century, the United States was in the midst of a gothic revival. This mostly effected churches, but the effects of this trend is also evident in the types of decorations (gargoyles) which were used on many of these old buildings. Imagine seeing a huge, grotesque gargoyle affixed to one of Los Angeles' glass skyscrapers. This image just doesn't work. New York architecture is the ideal fit for incorporating these ancient stone statues. While many New Yorkers are oblivious or indifferent to the existence of these stone onlookers who line their streets, gargoyles are a part of the charm and character that make this modern city appear far older than its years.

Although not exactly a "gargoyle", Grand Central Station shows the continuing importance of figurative decoration on buildings. As well as the usual gothic buildings, gargoyles in New York appear, as here, on even distinctly non medieval buildings.


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