John Freeman Gill’s The Gargoyle Huntersby Matt Grant
John Freeman Gill
The Gargoyle Hunters
The title of John Freeman Gill’s debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, references a 1962 New York Herald Tribune feature called “Gargoyle Hunting in New York.” From the 1950s through the 1970s, a period of widespread urban renewal threatened to demolish many of the city’s most historic buildings, a majority of which had gone up in the early 19th and 20th centuries, designed by world-renowned architects and carved by immigrant stone carvers who left their mark etching creatures and human figures into their walls.
As these buildings came down to make way for taller, more modern structures, ordinary men and women—self-titled “rubble rousers”—attempted to salvage discarded pieces of architectural beauty from junkyards and trash heaps. They had hoped to preserve, in some sense, the physical legacy of a city that was changing too quickly for anyone to keep up.
Undoubtedly, countless interesting finds during that time period never made headlines. But one story did—and it captured the entire city’s attention: the disappearance of an entire building. On June 26, 1974, the front page of the New York Times reported that three men were discovered trying to steal the final panel of the Bogardus building, a 126-year-old cast-iron façade that had been disassembled for preservation.
The Times described a dramatic event: “The theft became public when Mrs. Beverly Moss Spatt, chairman of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, dashed into the press room at City Hall shortly before noon yesterday and shouted, ‘Someone has stolen one of my buildings.’ She added: ‘It was an architectural treasure—the finest example of a cast‐iron building in the city.’” It’s this particular heist that Gill reimagines as the centerpiece of his novel, making the theft the result of an absentee father’s obsession with a disappearing city; and the novel is told through the eyes of his 13-year-old son, Griffin Watts.
Griffin lives in an Upper East Side brownstone with his mother, older sister, and a revolving cast of boarders that his mother invites into their home to help pay rent. Griffin’s parents are estranged, and he sees his father, Nick, seldomly. When Griffin stumbles across his father’s TriBeCa workshop and discovers his dad’s nighttime occupation as a Gargoyle hunter, he’s intrigued. Nick is an architecture junkie, apoplectic over the city’s casual dismissal of its grand history. He fights back by stealing priceless carvings and statues, sometimes directly off the buildings themselves. But his motivations aren’t always altruistic. He sells what he scavenges to pay for the brownstone Griffin and his family live in.
When Nick recognizes that Griffin’s small frame can easily get in and out of tight spaces, Griffin unwittingly gets caught up in his father’s schemes. Afraid to let his father down and desperate to spend time with him, Griffin gets pulled along on increasingly risky operations, capping off with the Bogardus building, which almost gets them arrested. As if that weren’t enough, at school, Griffin navigates the tricky waters of adolescence and first love, as he pursues a tantalizing ninth grade girl, Dani.
The Gargoyle Hunters is billed as a “love letter to a vanishing city.” That’s an apt description. Gill is a native New Yorker and the architecture and real estate editor for Avenue magazine, where he writes a monthly column on historic NYC buildings. Here, he finds a parallel in both Nick’s disdain for the contemporary city and Griffin’s wide-eyed wonder at a New York that no longer exists. The New York Gill writes about is the city of his childhood. Even though he portrays a perilous, crime-ridden metropolis where muggers lurk around every corner, it’s clear that he prefers this version to the sterile, modern-day New York.
That perspective can, at times, be difficult to manage. There are moments one senses the older author’s voice inhabiting the mouth of his much younger narrator, the likeable Griffin. And although the moments when Griffin and Dani are together on the page make for some lively and tender scenes, they, too, can act and sound a bit too mature for teenagers. And a casual reference to Dani’s struggle with anorexia, which is never mentioned again, seemed perhaps unnecessary.
Gill not only writes comfortably and convincingly about architecture, often making the case through Nick’s own words for why the loss of these historic buildings is a detriment to all New York citizens, but he has also done his research impeccably and invisibly: a reader with no architectural knowledge will happily get lost in the story and in the smart and sumptuous descriptions of terra-cotta panels, tourelles, and spandrels.
The Gargoyle Hunters is fascinating for the way it dramatizes one possible narrative lurking behind this bizarre historic event. While the Bogardus building heist actually happened (the book even quotes The New York Times story practically word for word), Gill constructs a completely fictional set of circumstances surrounding it. And I did find myself, after reading it, looking up and considering a particular lower Manhattan building’s carving that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. In that respect, it did its job.
MATT GRANT is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.