Venetian Red Notebook: The Guardians and Gargoyles of New York

by Christine Cariati

doorway guardian

New York is a paradise of architectural ornamentation. As a child wandering the streets I was endlessly fascinated by the gorgeous scroll work, animals, birds, angels, demons, beautiful faces, grotesque gargoyles, flowers and garlands that bedecked the facades of even the most modest brownstones, apartment houses and office buildings. I loved the visual richness, the textures, the crazy mix of styles and the sense of living surrounded by mythological creatures. New York was a visual encyclopedia of natural history—real and imagined—forged in terracotta, limestone, cast iron and metal.


The Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building—all these Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and Gothic Revival masterpieces were very impressive and I never tired of looking at them, but what really intrigued me were the everyday delights—walking down a street and glancing up to see a parade of gazelles below the second floor windows of a small apartment building or the monstrous gargoyles that protected my school.


Following the non-ornamental Federal style of the late 1700s-early 1800s, many buildings put up through the 1930s were highly ornamented, including the tenements built quickly to house the influx of immigrants arriving in New York. Much of the ornamentation, while striving for elegance and beauty, also served, or concealed, important functions, from providing needed structural support to deflecting rain water. Capitals, cornices, keystones, corbels, brackets and anchors could all serve a purpose as well as delight the eye.





man's face

green man




dog & rabbit


Much of the ornamentation of the period contained Gothic revival, Neo-Classic, Art Nouveau or Beaux-Arts elements. Decorative detail reached its formal, very stylized height with the Art Deco movement.


deco griffin

The rise of the International style and Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s put an end to New York’s golden age of ornamentation. While many of the cornices and keystones are crumbling from the effects of age and weather, there is still plenty to see. Next time you are walking around New York, especially on Wall Street, the Lower East Side, Chelsea, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side—be sure to look up.


Recommended reading:
New York Detail
, A Treasury of Ornamental Splendor by Yumiko Kobayashi and Ryo Watanabe
Details, The Architect’s Art by Sally B. Woodbridge, Photographs by Roz Joseph
Grand, Wasn’t It? by Constance Rosenblum. New York Times, August 20, 2009
Animals in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King
Faces in Stone, Architectural Sculpture in New York City by Robert Arthur King

12 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: The Guardians and Gargoyles of New York”

  1. Many, many years ago I worked at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Sidney Hornstein, a staff member there would also give geological tours of the city. One type of tour included looking at the types of marble, limestone, and granite used in the facades of the buildings. It was so much fun.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      That does sound really interesting and fun. Speaking of the Museum of Natural History, do you know Stephen Christopher Quinn’s wonderful book, “Windows on Nature, The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History”? Those wonderful dioramas are no less fascinating to me today than when i was a child, their potent combination of art and science brought the natural world to such vivid life.

      • My first museum job was at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. I worked with the exhibits department. One day a tiny many in an apron greeted me and said that I would be in the job forever as he himself had…however, he and several others had first been at AMNH. At 23 the last thing that I wanted to hear was that I would be indoors forever without day light…but he and the others were from the old school of diorama makers…they made plants etc. to the exact specification of each species…and they had made many of the dioramas in NY. Sidney would even give lectures on geology based on the dioramas.

        • Christine Cariati Says:

          Interesting story. I have to admit, I find something rather comforting in the level of obsessiveness it would take to devote oneself to such tasks for a lifetime. They spent their days creating these perfect, intricate, enclosed worlds—and their workplace became a kind of parallel universe.

  2. really nice. And congrats on your success w/ Venetian Red!

  3. What a lovely sampling! New York had always been a mysterious place for me, the hidden realms behind those startling angels and guardians.

  4. Liz-
    Mary and I send our heartfelt congratulations on your 200th anniversary- many happy returns….Shall we expect, say, a Liz and Lisa (as in Mona) film in the near future? I can of course see Drew Barrymore playing you; but who would play the Mona Lisa- Meryl Streeo (again)?


    • Walter,
      Hmmmmm, why not just make it “Mona Liz,” a truly scary artist’s bio pic gone mad? In that case, the flick could ONLY star Meryl Streep AND Phillis Diller. Julian Schnabel directing. (After all, the color of his Manhattan Moorish castle has been identified as Venetian Red. . . )

      Think the project will be a long time in the making (genius is a ways off). In the meantime, keep the love and comments coming.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and informative posting. I have always loved these architectural details. My father, Morris Mamorsky was the staff composer at NBC in Rockefeller Center and I always felt like I was entering a palace when I visited him there.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks for your comment, that’s exactly what I was trying to get across—that sense of occasion that architectural detail adds to our lives. The mythic figures and ornamentation aren’t just pleasing to the eye, they fire the imagination too.

  6. I have been thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s quote, following “the better angels of our nature”. It is interesting that looking up in NY always was an invitation to recognize beings beyond the human, both angels and demons. It is an interesting metaphysical thought that we are always in a struggle between good and evil in our actions and judgements, and perhaps those motifs on the architecture help push us more toward good, and away from evil, as we hurry along in our busy days…

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