Rocky horrors: Author talks about city’s gargoyles

Rocky horrors: Author talks about city’s gargoyles
Photo by Trey Pentecost

He’s taken a stone-faced look at the past!

The Prospect Heights author of “The Gargoyle Hunters” will discuss the city’s history with the striking stone figures designed to frighten evil spirits at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Oct. 2. John Freeman Gill said was inspired to write his novel after reading a 1962 New York Herald Tribune story about real-life statue scroungers who mined piles of rubble to find remnants of the architectural ornaments.

“It described a sort of fad of scavengers who would descend on demolition sites and landfills as these late 19th century buildings were being destroyed,” said Gill. “They were just a bunch of Brooklyn boys who would run around and rescue these pieces.”

Gill researched the stone figures, which began to proliferate throughout the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as waves of immigrants who were stone carvers in their home countries began to adorn their simple tenement buildings with elaborate mythological and historical figures and faces. Brooklyn is the best borough to find gargoyles, Gill said.

“Brooklyn has some of the greatest collections of these because of the historic districts,” he said. “One of my favorite neighborhoods to seek them out is Park Slope. There are blocks teeming with faces peering out at you from the architecture. And Brooklyn Heights is rich with them because of all the sumptuous mansions there.”

Brooklyn’s gargoyles are not just winged waterspouts and defenders of the night. One of Gill’s favorite figures, on an old building on First Street near Eighth Avenue in Park Slope, has a real-world doppelganger.

“The rarest ones are the ones that are not a historical or mythological figure, they just look like a regular person,” he said. “There’s this carved head with wild hair and a crazy moustache that looks like President Trump’s former lawyer, Ty Cobb.”

The Brooklyn Historical Society — where Gill will deliver his talk — is another of his favorite sites, since it is outfitted with terra cotta busts of Christopher Columbus and Benjamin Franklin, among others.

“One thing that’s particularly wonderful about doing this at the Brooklyn Historical Society is that building itself has some of the most beautiful architecture in the city — it has these fiery red portrait busts of historical and allegorical figures,” he said.

Gill hopes his book will inspire Brooklynites to take their eyes off their phones and instead take in the beauty and wonder of city’s architectural masterpieces.

“Once you start paying attention to these, you won’t stop seeing them,” he said. “They’re not so hidden — they’re actually hiding in plain sight.”

“New York’s Gargoyles: The Immigrants Who Made Them and the Hunters Who Saved Them” at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, www.brooklynhistory.org). Oct. 2 at 6:30 pm. $10.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
A lonely hunter: John Freeman Gill’s novel follows a 13-year-old boy who joins his father on dangerous expeditions to preserve forgotten gargoyles around the city.