Venetian Red Notebook: The Guardians and Gargoyles of New York
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.
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.
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.
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