New novel imagines what would happen if someone tried to steal NYC architecture

New York Weekend Edition /
Mar.March 26, 2017 10:16 AM

John Freeman Gill has written extensively about architecture and real estate for the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Avenue. Below, you can read an excerpt from his first book,”The Gargoyle Hunters,” set in crumbling 1970s New York City.

This selection brings to life the perils and high adventure of gargoyle hunting on top of the landmark Woolworth Building in 1974.

Gill sat down with us to discuss this nail-biting chapter.

Business Insider: The main character of your book is a 13-year-old boy named Griffin. What can you tell us about him?

John Freeman Gill: In the aftermath of his parents’ difficult divorce, Griffin is desperate to get closer to his estranged father.

He gets recruited into his dad’s illicit and quite dangerous architectural salvage business.

Because of his small size, Griffin’s job is to steal architectural sculptures — gargoyles — right off the facades of skyscrapers and tenements all over town.

BI: Why target the Woolworth Building?

Gill: The Woolworth Building is 60 stories tall, and it was the tallest structure in the world when it was built in 1913. Frank W. Woolworth paid for the whole thing in cash — I like to think of him using a mountainous pile of nickels and dimes collected from his discount stores around the country.

This corporate headquarters was clad with gorgeous terra cotta to “clothe it with beauty,” as its architect put it. The jewels of the building’s crown are the four little towers, or tourelles, at its corners. Each one is intricately adorned with vibrant decorations in different textures and colors, and until the 1970s, eight terra-cotta gargoyles each. A massive restoration project at that time left all the terra-cotta ornaments, including those 32 precious gargoyles, stripped from the tourelles and replaced with — true story! — glorified aluminum siding.

BI: Can you set the scene for the selection we’re excerpting today?

Gill: Griffin and his father have broken into the Woolworth Building in the middle of the night and climbed out a 53rd-story window just hours before the final surviving gargoyle is to be demolished. There’s just one last, surviving gargoyle, and Griffin’s obsessive, manic father is hell-bent on severing it from the building’s crown. This is his last chance to get it before the demolition contractors destroy it in the morning. In order to snatch the treasure, he is willing to risk his own son’s life. Griffin, for his part, consents out of a misplaced trust in his father.

BI: How did you research this chapter?

Gill: I wanted the scene to be realistic and authoritative, so I contacted a preservation architect named Tim Allanbrook, who served as deputy project manager on the restoration of the Woolworth Building. I thought it was a complete long shot, but I was hoping he might have a period snapshot or two of the Woolworth’s tourelles to help anchor my imagination in fact.

Tim’s answer astonished me: He said, “You know, John, I happen to have a whole PowerPoint presentation showing how we did each step of the restoration, and I’d be happy to share it with you.”

What an extraordinary gift that was! I then interviewed Tim repeatedly over the years, and he actually walked my characters around the top of the Woolworth with me, giving me insights on how they might realistically have gone about sawing a gargoyle off a tourelle on the 53rd floor. I also interviewed Roy Suskin, the point man at the Woolworth Building for one of the companies that owns it. Roy has thousands of unpublished photos and diagrams of  the Woolworth Building, many of which he showed me. And he, too, walked my characters, step by step, around the Woolworth’s crown.

To purchase The Gargoyle Hunters as a hardcover, ebook, or audiobook narrated by the author, click here.

Dad was on his knees by his duffel now, pulling out a coiled yellow extension cord and a nicked-up power saw of a size and shape I’d never seen before; it had a curved trigger and a long blade with fierce teeth. He went back along the narrow gutter on The Broadway side of the building, pushed open an ornately gabled window, and found an electrical outlet inside somewhere. He returned a minute later, playing the cord out behind him, then plugged the saw into it.

“This is a Sawzall,” he told me, firing it up. He had to raise his voice to be heard over its phlegmy growl. “Got a nice reciprocal blade on it.” The saw was ferociously loud, with a serrated blade that went zhigga-zhigga-zhigga in and out. Dad motioned me to stand back, then went to town on the aluminum siding that covered the lower portion of the tourelle. The Sawzall made horrible shrieking noises as it chewed through the sheet metal.

“Footholds,” he said simply when he was done, gesturing at the series of irregular, jagged-edged holes he’d cut all the way up the aluminum flank of the tourelle. “Only the best for my boy.”

I must have said, “Me?” because Dad immediately snapped, “Of course, you. I weigh a hundred ninety-five pounds. You think you can belay me?”

Up above us, vertical terra-cotta pinnacles ringed the top of the tourelle’s shaft like the pointy parts that stick up around the periphery of a crown.

Dad took a length of rope from his bag and, wearing work gloves, climbed far enough up the tourelle’s side to reach up and feed the rope’s end around one of these pinnacles.

He climbed down and tied the rope to the back of my belt, giving me a bit of a wedgie as he tugged the knot to test it.

“Pretty good, I think,” he said, handing me the gloves. “Up you go.” He made a sort of shooing motion with his hands. He’d gotten himself so worked up that I didn’t dare protest. I knew how scary he could get when he thought you were standing in the way of something he wanted.

Up I went. While Dad looped the rope around his back and bent his knees in a ready-for-anything stance, I began picking my way up the tourelle, using the holes he’d cut in the aluminum as hand- and footholds. Dad kept the line taut between me and the pinnacle.

What surprised me most when I pulled myself up to stand in the wind on the tourelle’s rim, fifty-three Stories Above The Street, was that I was even more afraid of falling into that tourelle than off it. Unlike its three purely ornamental siblings, which were closed on top, this tourelle was open to allow coal smoke to escape. So I was essentially standing on the rim of an enormous defunct smokestack, with an open grillwork cone rising above me.

I’d always had a terror of falling into holes, and that’s what the inside of that tourelle was: a seven-hundred-foot-deep hole. If I were clumsy enough to tumble in, my spindly body would plunge straight down to the basement furnace, arms wheeling.

“I don’t like all the abrasion that pinnacle was giving our rope,” Dad called up to me. “You’re going to need more mobility than that. Hang on a second and let me see what equipment I can find down where they’re working on the twenty-seventh floor.”

“Wait!” I cried into the wind, but he was already gone, disappeared around the corner below, where he either couldn’t hear me or pretended he couldn’t. He had left me again. I felt my testicles tighten up close to my crotch in fear, as if they wanted desperately to retreat clear up into my stomach. It was a sickening feeling. You never feel more alone than when someone was with you just a second ago.

I made a point of not looking around while he was gone, instead crouching on the rim and hugging the pinnacle, which was sooty gray and cracked. I tried to imagine what Dad might be up to from moment to moment—breaking into a storeroom downstairs somewhere, poking around in a tool chest with his powerful hands, hurrying back to see me. Surely if I concentrated hard enough on him, he would in turn think of me, and that would be almost like being together.

When Dad came back, he was carrying a big oval object that rattled as he walked. He told me to untie the rope from my belt and feed the end down to him, still keeping the rope looped around the pinnacle. When I fished the rope back up, my catch was a big wooden pulley with a green box cutter duct-taped to its side.

“That’s a pulley from one of the hanging scaffolds they’re using to clean the façade down below,” Dad said. “Got some other handy stuff, too, but I’ll send that up to you later.”

For now, I was to untie the pulley, drop the rope back down to him, and climb around the rim of the tourelle to the gargoyle. “When you’ve got a nice angle on it, just clip the pulley to the grillage above you and wait for me.”

I did as I was told. No longer tied to anything, no longer protected in any way, I gingerly made my way around the crumbly rim of the tourelle with the pulley under my right arm, stopping periodically to catch my breath and try to get my heartbeat to slow down. The wind was picking up, blowing across the open ring of the tourelle with a resonant, melancholy hum—a deeper, more haunting version of the sound made by a breath across the top of a Coke bottle. For a moment, I again imagined falling in, and started to feel sickish. To distract myself and keep warm, I tucked my chin into my chest, blowing hot air into the front of my down jacket.

The outside of the tourelle was still covered in black netting, with some weird exceptions. Every few feet, the top of the netting had been shredded. Peering down in those places, I saw a kind of terra-cotta stump, which I guessed was all that remained of the gargoyle that had made its home there before the contractors destroyed it. It was easy to see what had gotten Dad so hopping mad. It did something to your stomach to see a violent absence up close like that.

After passing two or three of these stumps, edging far around the tourelle toward the dark gulf above Broadway, I looked down to see this time not an absence but a presence: a sharply defined, long-necked figure jutting from the wall with prickly alacrity. The creature’s body strained against the taut black netting that covered it, and if I hadn’t known what it was, I would have thought it was alive. You could feel the energy coming off it, and the more I peered down at it, the more details of its exotic body I could make out: curled claws gripping the façade; muscular, distrustful haunches ready to spring; a spread of feathers that might have been wings; an arched back and tense, alert neck. All watchfulness and cold coiled power.

And then, something amusing, or so it seemed to me; something that cried out for closer inspection. But first to free up my hands. The old wooden pulley had a kind of clip at the top; I stood up tall and attached it to a steel cross-piece on the grillwork above me, then untaped the green box cutter from its side.

Crouching down again and releasing the blade with a thumb flick, I began to slash at the black netting that shrouded the gargoyle. It was satisfying to watch the mesh fall away, and when I’d laid bare the gargoyle’s form I saw that I’d been right to be amused, for the surging terra-cotta creature was wearing what appeared to be an improvised leash. Looped around his neck and running in a taut diagonal up to a bolt in the wall above him was a weathered, small-linked chain.

“Oh, good going!” I heard Dad’s voice call to me from somewhere down below. “You figured out why I sent up the box cutter. So we’re ahead of the game already.”

I peered down toward his voice just in time to be momentarily blinded by a work light Dad was setting up for me atop the pipe-frame scaffold, a good fifteen feet beneath the gargoyle. He had evidently taken the interior stairs down to the building’s forty-ninth-floor setback, where both the tourelle and its scaffolding originated, and had then climbed up the incomplete scaffolding to a spot right beneath me and the gargoyle.

“Yeah,” I called down. “I got him all freed up from the netting, I think. But what’s with this leash? ‘Please curb your gargoyle’?”

Dad looked where I was pointing and laughed out loud when he saw the little chain. “Well, that’s a novel approach, but not so surprising, really. No one had ever used terra-cotta cladding for such a huge building, so the stuff started to fail pretty much the moment they installed it in 1913. They’ve been putting half-assed protections like that all over the building for decades to keep the ornament from falling on pedestrians.”

Dad told me to look alive, and he tossed up a rope with a metal clip tied to the end. On the third try I caught it. Following his instructions, I looped the rope through the pulley on the grillwork above me. Then I fed the rope back down to Dad. A minute later he sent up a sort of harness clipped onto the end of it. The harness was fastened through the handle of a circular saw, which trailed a thick orange extension cord.

“Put that Skilsaw to the side and get that harness on,” he called up. “It’s what the guys working on the façade downstairs have been using.”

The harness was little more than a thick leather belt sewn into a heavy, canvas-padded waist strap maybe eight inches wide. By the time I was all cinched in, my hips were uncomfortably constricted by that strap, which had a D-shaped ring at the back into which the rope was clipped. The rope, in turn, ran up around the pulley and down to Dad. I wasn’t sure whether I felt like a mountain climber or a marionette.

I knew how to work the circular saw. In Echo Harbor, Dad and I had used it to make a birdhouse for Mom. We’d wanted to attract songbirds, but we made the holes too big and a family of astonishingly bitchy squirrels had routed its feathered tenants and moved in instead.

“That gargoyle probably has a bronze rod running through its center,” Dad said from below. “The front end is likely fastened with a washer and nut inside his mouth, and the back end extends beyond the gargoyle and ties into the structural steel of the tourelle.”

But first things first: we had to get through the terra-cotta before going to work on that rod. My first step, then, was to cut around the gargoyle’s neck as close to the tourelle as I could manage; I didn’t need to worry about hitting the rod inside the gargoyle, Dad assured me, because the circular saw’s blade was too short to come into contact with it. “Just try to get us as much of his neck as possible, kiddo, and when you’re done with that cut I’ll tell you how we sever him from the building.”

One of the books Kyle and I were always quoting back and forth to each other was Catch-22, and I kept thinking about a gross description in there of a guy who’d fallen from a building and gone splat on the sidewalk, where his pulpy body lay motionless like “an alpaca sack full of strawberry ice cream, pink toes awry.” We’d always thought of it as a pretty funny passage, but now the idea of that pavement-tenderized dead guy made my stomach feel empty and bloated at the same time.

Still, I had a plan how not to become that leaky corpse down by the curb. Basically, I just straddled the rim of the tourelle to the right of and just above the gargoyle, gripped that wall tightly between my knees, and leaned over to hold the saw’s teeth above the terra-cotta creature. I steadied myself and squeezed the trigger, lowering the whirring round blade onto the gargoyle’s neck. Despite the hissing whine the blade made on contact, it cut into the terra-cotta without much resistance, and I eased it carefully around the curve of the sculpture as far as I could reach. Oddly, though I was leaning out into a fifty-three-story drop, I felt almost relieved to be getting away from the yawning mouth of the tourelle.

After switching off the circular saw long enough to squiggle my butt back a bit on the tourelle’s rim, I twisted my torso, reached lower at a more treacherous angle, and managed to continue the cut around the bottom of the gargoyle’s neck—his throat, I guess you’d call it. I had to squint to protect my eyes from the powder the saw’s blade spun up toward me, but other than that it wasn’t too hard. And by the faint but ever-present pressure around my waist, I could tell that Dad was adjusting to my movements with great subtlety, playing out and pulling in rope as needed. We made a good team.

“Now what?” I called down when the saw’s whining blade had spun back into silence. The gargoyle’s neck was mostly severed, a thin line of clay powder on either side of the dark cut. But it was still very much attached to the building.

Dad had me unstrap myself and send the circular saw back down to him in the harness. It was easy to see how excited he was, manic almost. He talked very fast and moved around on that swaying scaffold down there probably more than he needed to. Before too long, he sent the harness back up with the Sawzall strapped inside it.

When my loins were all uncomfortably girded again, I permitted myself a glance at my surroundings. The night sky was a touch lighter, the city a tad less protective of its secrets. The bulky smudges of darkness downtown were beginning to resolve themselves into something like buildings.

“Now, this tool is jerkier than the circular saw,” Dad called up from the scaffold planking. “So to get better leverage, you’re going to want to lock the blade in the on position by hitting the little button above the trigger with your thumb. Then you’re just going to ease the blade into that cut you’ve already made. When you’re ready, just put a little extra pressure on that top handle with your left hand and guide the blade slowly down onto the rod. When you’ve cut all the way through, that chain leash should keep the gargoyle from falling very far.”

By the time I was comfortable with my angle and balance, my head was tipped down so far that I could feel the blood thumping in my temples.

“Don’t worry; lean over as far as you need to,” Dad said. “I’ve got you.” And he did, too; I could feel the rope’s reassuring tug on the back of my harness, could see him below me, playing out more rope as I stretched down to get my left palm in good position on top of the Sawzall.

I eased the blade into the slot on the gargoyle’s neck the way he’d told me, squeezed the trigger, and thumbed the blade lock. Right away, I could tell something was wrong. I’d forgotten you’re supposed to turn on a saw before making contact with the thing you’re cutting, and as soon as that crazy zhigga-zhigga blade started trying to jerk up and down, I realized it was fighting me, and fighting the gargoyle, too. The blade was jammed in that slot, and it didn’t like it. To try to loosen it, I leaned farther off the building and shoved down with my left hand, driving hard from my elbow. At first the saw didn’t dislodge, just struggled further, its motor growling, all that pugnacious herky-jerky energy transferring not to the blade but up through my hands and arms, causing me to shift my weight abruptly to keep from falling. Maybe that sudden movement bent the blade or jogged something loose, or both, but for one quick moment the Sawzall seemed to move as it should, its blade sliding down into the slot, sawing rhythmically up and down—until I felt it jolt against the rod, felt it catch and stutter and then kick back toward me with startling violence, the butt of the saw handle smashing me in the shoulder and knocking me off balance.

I was falling then, tumbling sideways right off the building, dropping the Sawzall to throw my arms around the gargoyle’s long neck, a lunge of desperation that seemed, remarkably, to stop my fall, until I felt that wonderful abrupt tug at my waist and realized that it was not the gargoyle but Dad who was supporting me, holding strong at the other end of the rope that connected me to him.

In that moment, practically strangling the gargoyle with my arms in my confusion of desperation and gratitude, I saw the Sawzall dropping toward the scaffold beneath me, its jagged teeth sawing the air. It didn’t hit Dad. It landed on the planking a couple of feet from him, but with its blade still pumping fiercely back and forth, it skittered wildly across the wood toward his ankles, forcing him to leap out of its path.

There was no way he could have held on to that rope. I felt it go limp at my waist, felt the burden of my own weight grow suddenly enormous on the gargoyle. I gripped him tighter in my desperation, heaving my skinny chest farther up onto his skinny neck, which, to my amazement, remained attached to the building. Then, slowly, almost serenely, the skyline creature began dipping his head toward the street. There was a contemplativeness to his movement, a deliberation—until his neck snapped cleanly at the cut I’d made, the little chain leash yanked right out of the wall, and I was plummeting through the open air toward the street, hugging this useless, dragon-eared hunk of terra-cotta to my chest.

Time flattened out then. I didn’t see Dad as I plunged face-first past the top of the scaffolding, but I did see the cross-pipe he’d tied the rope to, and I saw that rope in its last instant of slackness, uncoiling from its pile on the planking and flying frantically upward toward the pulley. Then the rope stiffened suddenly and gave a fierce yank on my harness, arresting my fall for only the merest moment before tearing the cross-pipe right off the scaffold and releasing me again to plunge toward the pavement.

I was in free fall now, the smeary yellow lights of Broadway’s streetlamps rushing up at me, the cold air so strong in my face and throat that I couldn’t breathe or even blink. This time when the rope jerked violently on my harness, I was completely stunned. The sudden force of the harness belt against my stomach was so wrenching that it knocked the wind out of me, and now the gargoyle and I were swinging on the end of that rope straight toward the broad cliff face of the Woolworth’s flank.

I gripped the gargoyle tight and shut my eyes tighter, opening them cringingly just as we smashed into the ornamental edging of an elaborate terra-cotta canopy, the gargoyle taking the brunt of the impact and sending fragments of shattered crockets and pinnacles flying in all directions like Gothic bowling pins. Away we swung from the wall again, spinning counterclockwise to gaze out involuntarily over Lower Manhattan—the high-rise hodgepodge of the financial district, the spangled-harp spans of the Brooklyn Bridge, the dirty-gold goddess topping the columned tower across City Hall Park—then swinging back into the canopy’s upper edge, not too roughly, my right shoulder sharing the impact with the gargoyle this time.

We collapsed, the two of us, onto the flat top of the terra-cotta canopy, where I lay gratefully with my eyes closed for a very long time, breathing, just breathing, exulting in the sensation of being completely at rest. My crotch felt oddly warm, then cold, and I realized I had pissed myself.

When I dared open my eyes again, I was startled to find myself face-to-face with the gargoyle, which I’d forgotten I still held in my arms. He was staring at me with penetrating, deep-set eyes. He had the facial features of a Labrador retriever, or a gryphon or dragon, or maybe a lion; he was all these things and yet not quite any of them. But I liked him. He was giving me a sneaky, conspiratorial grin, which I appreciated.

He also had something around his neck. Fighting the overwhelming exhaustion that pressed on my eyes, I lifted my head to peer more closely at this odd, comforting creature and saw that he was still wearing his little chain leash. That made me laugh.

“Good dog,” I said, laying my head down again beside him and shutting my eyes against the world.

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