High above Broadway in Lower Manhattan, Roy Suskin points to a row of terra cotta figures lining the upper ledge of the Woolworth Building.
“You can see one of the gargoyles there in the corner, over here is a frog and a bat.”
Suskin is the VP of Development at the Woolworth Building, a job he jokingly describes as “making sure the building doesn’t fall down.”
With 450,000 individual pieces of terra cotta covering the 105-year-old skyscraper, it might not be that much of a joke. If you looked up the phrase “they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore” in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of the Woolworth. Everywhere you look is detailed craftsmanship—purely decorative—that cost-conscious developers would never dream of including today.
One shining (and spooky) example: the gargoyles.
Well, technically they’re not all gargoyles. Some are grotesques. And actually, even the gargoyles aren’t real gargoyles, they’re skeuomorphs (a word Suskin taught me that I can’t wait to use in a Scrabble match).
Let’s back up a bit.
That thing you imagine when you hear the word gargoyle probably isn’t a gargoyle. Gargoyles, by definition have a specific, functional purpose—they contain a downspout, from which rain water from the roof is directed away from the side of the building (preventing corrosion and discoloration). No downspout = no gargoyle.
What you’re probably thinking of is a grotesque—a decorative architectural feature carved from stone, frequently depicting a monster or animal of some sort. Given that most office buildings in major U.S. cities were built in the 20th century or later, few (if any) feature real gargoyles on their facades. Like the dragons jutting out from the 28th floor of the Woolworth Building, they’re an example of skeuomorphism—an ornamental object derived from something that once had functional use.
But functional or not, gargoyles and grotesques in NYC are hard to find. The 1925 World’s Fair in Paris gave rise to Art Deco architecture, and the monstrous stone decorations became passé.
“Sculptors in the city, back in the 19th and early 20th century, often had lots of freedom to carve what they wanted,” says John Gill, author of the 2017 novel “The Gargoyle Hunters.” “On more humble buildings, the architects didn’t design the ornament, they would just write the word ‘carving’ on the plan. On the worksite, the stone would already be set into building. The carver would trot up to the worksite and the foreman would point to keystone and say ‘Give me a Moses!’ and that meant the carver could carve any imposing face he felt like—himself, his father in law or his bartender.”
They’re easy to miss in a city like New York. Hanging hundreds of feet over the sidewalk, you have to know where to look. In case you’ve got better things to do than stare into the sky on the sidewalks of Manhattan with binoculars, we took the liberty of snapping some pics of a few of our favorite creepy, stone monsters keeping watch over the office workers of the city.
Architect: Cass Gilbert
The Woolworth’s terra cotta façade features many gargoyles and animal carvings, but it used to have a lot more. In the 1970s, the exterior of the building was in bad shape and needed costly repairs to prevent pieces from falling down to the sidewalk below. Much of it was restores, but as many as 32 gargoyles were removed from the building.
Architect: William van Alen
No list of New York office gargoyles would be complete without the mighty Chrysler Building. With its Art Deco style, the eagle heads jutting out from the 61st floor are unlike any others in the city, and maybe the only example of what might be considered a gargoyle after the 1915 when modernism made architectural sculptures passé.
Architect: Frederick C. Browne
This example of Neo-Gothic architecture across from Madison Square Park flies under the radar—little information about it can be found online. The building was erected by the Croisic Realty Company and designed by Frederick C. Browne and at one point housed the New York offices of the Chicago Tribune.
Architect: Cass Gilbert
Another Cass Gilbert special, the New York Life Building to this day still houses the headquarters of its namesake company. With a gold leaf roof, it’s especially striking on a clear day against the blue sky.
Architect: Rouse & Goldstone
Precious little information is available regarding the history of 250 Park Avenue South, but the limestone facade on this gem speaks for itself.
Architect: Cross & Cross
Now technically, 20 Exchange Place is not an office building. It partially converted into luxury condos, but it was originally built for office space, and it’s just too cool not to include. Originally built for two financial firms that eventually became the modern day Citibank, the original plans for the building would have put it in the running for the world’s tallest at 846 feet. These plans were later scaled back. Good thing too, because the Chrysler Building would smash that record the same year 20 Exchange was completed.
Architect: J. Stewart Barney and Stocton B. Colt
Another beautiful building with little information online, this terra cotta beauty only made the list because I happened to walk by in between stops while photographing and saw these fun figures on top. It’s amazing what you’ll notice when you look up!
Architect: Henry Ives Cobb
Another former office building that has since turned into a residential building, Liberty Tower is just down the street from Convene’s corporate headquarters in Lower Manhattan. In its long history, the building has played a role in several national scandals. In 1917, German spies rented an office in the building as cover for a plot to form an alliance with Mexico should the U.S. enter World War I. Later on, the building became the headquarters of the Sinclair Oil Company, a central figure in the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Harding administration.
Architect: Francis H. Kimball
When it was completed in 1905, the New York Times heaped praise on the Trinity Building. As new office buildings sprung up around Trinity Church, many worried that they would overshadow the historic place of worship, and create a sort of dark metaphor for the priorities of a growing nation. But in the Sunday Times on June 4th 1905, the paper declared this new building a worthy neighbor to Trinity Church, calling it “more than an office building,” but a “gigantic milestone marking the advance of ideas” and stating that “perhaps there is not in all New York a structure better worthy of being studied.”