WHY YOU SHOULD APPRECIATE THE FACES CARVED INTO UPPER WEST SIDE BUILDINGS


A childlike face carved above a door at the Beresford on Central Park West.

By Carol Tannenhauser

“All you have to do is look up, that’s it, just look up when you’re walking around your neighborhood,” said Robert Arthur King.

It wasn’t an admonishment to get off your cell phone, but an invitation to enjoy the art that is all around us – not in museums, but carved above the doorways and on the facades of ordinary, old buildings and brownstones: faces, animals, flowers, designs, done by unknown, unheralded artisans.

“They talk about the architect of a building and the owner, but there’s very little research about the artists who did the details,” said King, an architect himself and professor at the New York School of Interior Design. He is the subject of a short film, called “Stonefaced,” by Vivian Ducat, shown recently at a meeting of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Club. King estimates that most of the details were done between 1850 and 1930. “After that, the art died,” he said.

King began photographing building details when taking a class that required him to photograph women. “Being a little shy I decided to photograph women on buildings,” he laughed. “I got a little obsessed and started photographing animals too, then flowers.” His work has resulted in three books, the latest released this May, called ”Figures in Stone.”

“You discover things when you look up,” King said. “You sometimes wonder, ‘Who is that?’ It could be the child of the developer or the owner. After awhile you become close to the faces, visit them sometimes. They’re all different and always there. The pity is, no one notices. They just walk by. It’s also unfortunate that this is an art that really does not have much to do now, with the building of glass boxes. Modern buildings are ‘faceless,’ with very little character. It does impact the streetscape.”

So look up! And send us your discoveries at: westsiderag at gmail dot com.

HISTORY, REAL ESTATE | 18 comments | permalink
    1. Beautiful! So much architecture to enjoy in the UWS neighborhoods. Will look up.

    2. Bobby says:

      the reason i live on the uWs is for the architecture.. and the parks.. and the philharmonic. save the rent!

    3. Mark says:

      I pity the many fools who walk around the City with their eyes directed to their phones. As this article describes, there is so much to see.

    4. ar says:

      I actually started the same project a couple of years ago–photographing the stone sculptures on UWS. Now I can stop since King’s published a book on it. It is all wonderful stuff and there’s more than just faces. Another aspect that’s interested me is, who did all this? And how were they done? Maybe answers in King’s book.

      • Bernie the Chisel (in both senses) says:

        Much of this work was done by immigrant laborers and stone masons, which in part accounts for the anonymity of their work. The craft is lost today. Some years back, when the Cathedral of St. John the Divine restarted its building project, it brought in an expert stonemason from, as I recall, England to train people from the community to cut and shape the needed stonework.

    5. Kindly Dr. Dave says:

      Great to see attention paid to these sculptures. They are really “OUTSIDER ART”.
      We should all enjoy and appreciate them. My favorites are those on the Cathedral of St John and the real outsiders on the building between Amst and Bwy on the uptown side of 110th.

    6. Karin Fantus says:

      “A Rural Shrine to New York’s Angels and Gargoyles” NYT/5/5/17 I think this upstate museum is worth a visit; I plan to go this summer.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/nyregion/anonymous-arts-museum-rural-shrine-to-city-decorations.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_ur_20170505&nl=new-york-today&nl_art=3&nlid=66475180&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0

      • UWSEd says:

        Charlotteville, NY, is just over an hour west of Albany. I’ll be visiting it this summer, too.

        Thank you, Karin!

    7. Carmen says:

      Read John Freeman Gill’s recent novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, about NYC, a teenage boy and his father and architectur in the gritty 1970’s.

    8. Jean says:

      I wonder if the same model was used in many if these figurehead?
      It IS a shame that no one signed any of these faces, however it’s possible these may have been stock sculptures readily available at the time from an architectural catalogue.

    9. Karen says:

      The child in the top photo is a putto (plural putti), a naked, chubby male. The concept was revived in Renaissance art; the name derives from the Latin , meaning boy child. Although they are depicted with wings, putti are secular: They are not cherubs or other angels. In the Bible, cherubs are not cute and putti-like. In ancient Greece, Eros (who became the Roman Cupid) was a youth. But in the Renaissance, artists began to turn him into what we now think of as a chubby little cherub.

    10. Sarah says:

      I think it’s one of the most pleasant aspects of living on the UWS that your eye is always being caught by some architectural detail. I was walking around with an out-of-town friend the other day and she was laughing at me for being all “Oh, and if you look up here, there’s this neat thing…and over there, that neat thing…” But it’s true.

    11. UWSEd says:

      The video clip is described as a trailer.

      Is “Stonefaced” to be released as a documentary and, if so, does anyone know where and when?

      Thanks!

    12. Sue L says:

      I was amazed that nowhere in her article did Carol Tannenhauser use the word “gargoyles.” Though most of them may not fulfill their original medieval function–i.e., waterspouts–in every other way, in fact that’s what they are.*
      *For a fascinating take on them (as well as related UWS and Jewish subjects), I recommend Thane Rosenbaum’s oddball novel THE GOLEMS OF GOTHAM (HarperCollins, 2002.)

    13. UWSSurfer says:

      Beautiful! Thank you, Robert Arthur King.

      There are treasured faces to discover on the brownstones in the West 70s between Amsterdam and CPW.

    14. Linda says:

      Wonderful item!

    15. Peter Brandt says:

      Would love to meet Mr. King. We have similar interests. I have at least 10,000 such photographs. Its my hobby to shoot architectural details. I’m a retired architectural photographer who can’t stop.