Flight of the Gargoyles

Friday, March 10, 2017

A hundred and four years after the Woolworth Building was opened with dazzling showmanship as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the venerable neo-Gothic masterpiece is again one of the most high-profile real estate projects in New York City.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the 60-story office tower by pressing a button in the White House that illuminated the building with 80,000 light bulbs. Now Alchemy Properties is converting the landmark tower’s top 30 stories into 33 residential condominiums. The first five apartments were put on the market in January, with asking prices ranging from $4.575 million for a one-bedroom to $26.4 million for a full-floor residence. The seven-story penthouse in the tower’s pinnacle, which is expected to carry a gobsmacking $110 million price tag, will be offered for sale midyear, said Kenneth S. Horn, Alchemy’s president.

The Woolworth’s soaring terra-cotta façade—festooned with Gothic crockets, gables and gargoyles—has always been a major selling point. Handcrafted by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, the fired-clay cladding was chosen for the building to “clothe it in beauty,” as its architect, Cass Gilbert, put it. Today the Woolworth’s top floors are shrouded in black netting, as Alchemy implements a $20 million plan to replace 3,400 damaged pieces with new terra-cotta duplicates.

The project prioritizes the textured window surrounds, which are visible from the inside, framing striking city views in vibrant blues, greens and yellows. “It’s a huge endeavor,” Horn said, “but it’s a very big responsibility working on this building, and you want to do it right.”

The Woolworth has exercised a great hold on my imagination since the early 1990s, when I admired it regularly from the window of my sister’s Tribeca loft. Over time, the building became almost a living character for me, its complexly textured surface changing moods in different lights and seasons. Consequently, when I set out to write my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters—which will be published this month by Alfred A. Knopf—I was determined to set a major chapter atop the landmark cloudscraper’s richly ornamented crown.

The book, set in the vividly crumbling Manhattan of the 1970s, centers on a boy who is recruited into his father’s illicit and dangerous architectural salvage business. Small and nimble, the boy is tasked with climbing around the tops of buildings to steal architectural sculptures right off their façades. The climactic scene I envisioned follows the reluctant son as his obsessive father sends him clambering up the Woolworth’s terra-cotta ornamentation to sever a gargoyle with a power saw.

The Woolworth’s terra-cotta façade, celebrated as it may be, has long been a curse as well as a blessing for its owners. Indeed, it began to fail almost from the moment it was installed. In a 1913 letter, Frank W. Woolworth, the company’s founder, wrote to Gilbert to complain that the terra cotta was already cracking, according to Roy Suskin, a vice president of the Witkoff Group, which bought the building in 1998.

Things deteriorated from there. The jewels of the Woolworth’s crown were the four little towers, or tourelles, at its corners, each one adorned with vibrant terra-cotta ornamentation in a rising rhythm of textures and colors. The northeastern tourelle was open at the top, as it was actually the summit of the tallest chimney in the world. In winter, it spewed forth some 1,500 pounds of coal soot daily, Suskin said, eating away great chunks of the pyramidal copper roof and soiling the tower’s peak.

The problems mounted. Water infiltrated the mortar joints, freezing and pushing the terra cotta outward. Moisture corroded steel beneath the façade. Among the idiosyncratic protective measures adopted was a copper leash that was fitted around the neck of a gargoyle and bolted to the façade to catch the vivid skybeast should he detach himself from the building.

To rescue the façade, a six-year, $20 million restoration was undertaken in 1975, ultimately replacing 26,000 of the building’s terra-cotta pieces with precast concrete replicas. But significant corners were cut on the tourelles, which were stripped of protruding terra-cotta and clad with glorified aluminum siding. Among the casualties were 32 gargoyles.

So what became of these 32 deposed sculptures? “A large number ended up in a locked closet on the 28th floor under the control of the Woolworth company,” said Timothy Allanbrook, a preservation architect who worked on the 1970s restoration. At the end of the job, he added, the head of one of the dismembered gargoyles—a doglike creature—was presented to him by the project manager. In 1982, Allanbrook spotted a second on sale for $1,800 at an architectural salvage shop.

Until recently, that was all I knew of the whereabouts of the severed gargoyles. But then, on a visit to Suskin’s Woolworth Building office, my eye wandered to a shelf on the wall. There, stored unceremoniously amid old boxes and disordered piles of technical manuals dating back to 1970, was a dog-headed sibling gargoyle of Allanbrook’s. Its mouth was wide open, and its eyes were gazing—forlornly, it seemed to me—at an unglamorous drop ceiling inches above its nose.

“That’s the only one we know about,” Suskin said in his gravelly voice. “Whether there are other ones somewhere? Nobody’s ever popped up.” 

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017. The book is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection.


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