By Stan Solomon
Hey, you! Yes, you, busy UWSer – have you ever felt, as you rushed about this place, that somebody…or something…was watching you?
Now, don’t get all paranoid and start scanning for black helicopters over Broadway or holding aloft an always-open black umbrella! We’re not talking about surveillance by your nosy neighbor, by the Feds, or by some Private Investigator hired by your nudnik ex-brother-in-law.
No, we’re talking about “Statuary” (a.k.a. “Statch-oo-rary” in some neighborhoods) in architecture – those above-street-level stone carvings that you’ve probably never really noticed but which adorn the facades of many of our classier, named buildings (but not you, glass-and-aluminum The Corner, even though you do contain Trader Joe’s!).
These carvings are some times free-standing three-dimensional sculptures, but more often just done “in Relief.” As explained by Wikipedia, “There are different degrees of relief depending on the degree of projection of the sculpted form from the field.”
Which gives us mucho relief: the better-known Bas- (or low-) Relief, plus Mid- and even High-. But not to worry; this is not evidence, despite Tea-Party claims, that we are becoming a Relief State. Rather, it is evidence that New York City was once home to some very talented stone-carvers hired by some very foresighted developers to decorate their then-state-of-the-art luxury buildings. And they created a treasure trove of creatures – some in animal form but most in human form – meant to exist for eternity – or until the building is torn down and replaced by a newer one.
Experts call their creations by such high-falutin’ terms as:
- “Grotesques” (pl. noun – “In architecture, carved stone figures”);
- “Chimeras” (pl. noun – “Fantastic, mythical or grotesque figures used for decorative purposes” – and how’s that for circular logic?); or
- “Putti” (pl. noun – “works of art depicted as chubby male children” … and not the town in Uganda).
But Our Spiritual Brothers Across The Pond Who Invented the English Language have a better all-inclusive name for all of the above. At least the lads in Shropshire do, for there they are called “Hunky Punks” – the statuary, not the lads, that is. And, according to Wikipedia, a Hunky Punk “is an architectural feature that serves no purpose.” Except, perhaps, to provide some visual delight.
Which sets them apart from “Gargoyles” (sadly, there are no ‘Garboyz’). That’s because a true Gargoyle has but one purpose – not to look beautiful (most do not) but to carry away rainwater from the side of a building and thus prevent erosion of the all-important mortar. The term can be traced to the French Gargouille (throat or gullet), more easily understood when one learns that the German term for a water-conducting device is Wasserspeier and the Dutch Waterspuwer – both loosely translated as “water-spitter.”
Although some Gargoyles represented humans, most were crafted with animal faces. In fact, the ancient Egyptians crafted lions heads, as did the Greeks; and Greece’s Temple of Zeus reportedly had lion-head water spouts. Of course they are long-gone, and so are their mid-20th Century incarnations – those delightful coin-activated ‘Spitting Lions’ that once dispensed coffee and other beverages at the old Horn and Hardart’s Automat chain of restaurants.
So our Upper West Side has few-to-no true Gargoyles, but it does have many, many Grotesques – besides those locals in Fairway or Zabar’s. These other Grotesques, made of stone, grace famed buildings like The Ansonia, The Apthorp, and The Dorilton…as well as some lesser-known buildings (The Van Dyke, anyone?). And they are up there day-and-night-and-rain-or-shine. Okay, maybe they are not watching you; but it is nice to anthropomorphize them and imagine that they are watching…something.
And so we present a by-no-means comprehensive survey of some of the more interesting carvings gracing what might be called ‘Lincoln Square North’ – that area between 70th and 79th Streets, from Central Park West to West End Avenue. Because that is so full of great examples, we have limited ourselves, for now, to just these notable, named, buildings:
- The Ansonia – west side of Broadway, btw. 73rd – 74th.
- The Apthorp – west side of Broadway, btw. 78th – 79th.
- The Coronado – north side of 70th, just in from Broadway
- The Dorilton – corner 71st and Amsterdam/Broadway
- The Level Club – north side of 73rd, btw. Broadway and West End.
- The Pythian – north side of 70th, btw. Broadway and Columbus
- The Van Dyke – north side of 72nd, just in from Amsterdam
And if you do pass by any of these buildings, be sure to look up and say ‘Hi’ to the Hunky Punks. Remember, they’ll be watching (for) you!
Photos and captions by Stan Solomon.
For more of Stan’s columns, click here.