Inside The Gargoyle Hunters

by Natasha Wolff | April 5, 2017 11:00 am

You don’t find people who “like” New York. Its 305 square miles, packed with close to 9 million bodies, are the definition of polarizing. You either love it or you hate it. Those who choose the former often see the city itself as an organism: A living, breathing thing you develop affection for like you would a particularly unruly pet. The mere sight of your favorite bodega can lift your spirits—just as signs of scaffolding, signaling its imminent demise, can induce mourning. All too often, what you love about New York is lost—and just as quickly replaced—leaving you to reconcile the city’s ever-changing reality with whatever nostalgic ghost is burned into your memory. 

In his debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, native New Yorker John Freeman Gill, an architectural writer for the New York Times and The Atlantic, explores the relationship the city can have with its residents—and the lengths to which certain New Yorkers will go to preserve the place they adore. Gill’s work of historical fiction centers on a teenage boy coming of age in 1970s Manhattan (the same backdrop of 2015’s critically acclaimed opus City on Fire), striving to build lasting bonds as his city, all but crumbling around him, careens toward bankruptcy. Passages of Vaseline-lensed fiction are expertly woven with well-researched fact, yielding a delightfully readable—and highly believable—tale. 

“Growing up, old New York was alive and well in my apartment: My mother’s been painting street scenes since the 50s. The week after I graduated from an MFA program [in the mid 1990s], I banged out 15 or so pages of what ended up being the first chapter,” explains Gill, who grew up in the same brownstone as his protagonist. “Then I became a reporter and learned about preservation and the history of the city. That’s what gave the book two layers: The very intimate story of a disintegrating family, [and] the larger story about the near death of New York.” 

The Bogardus Building, New York, Photo by The Library of Congress.

Gill’s childhood home isn’t the only true-life talisman to animate the novel. The titular gargoyles were very real too—before many were demolished to make way for today’s glass-and-steel skyline. Also real: The “hunters” who broke the law to save them. (Says Gill: “‘So you stole them,” I said to a man who was telling me about his adventures. He paused a second and said, ‘I’m not prepared to confess.’”) Perhaps the book’s most significant plot point is also ripped from the headlines: The 1974 theft of a disassembled cast-iron Tribeca structure known as the Bogardus Building. To this day, its disappearance is shrouded in mystery. 

As with most romances, the New York one falls in love with is the New York one recalls most forgivingly—and the New York one most wants to protect. Case in point: “It’s horrifying that the Rizzoli Bookstore, on West 57th Street, was torn down for yet another monster high-rise,” Gill says of a recently lost former haunt. Alas, time’s passage can’t be stilled, as Gill and other preservation-minded New Yorkers know all too well. Until it can, if nothing else The Gargoyle Hunters gives new meaning to the old refrain: I’ll take Manhattan. 

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