The Real Deal New York

Drawn to New York

An illustrator plans to sketch the entire city -- one building at a time
By Vanessa Weiman | March 30, 2011 06:30PM
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James Gulliver Hancock

James Gulliver Hancock is not a broker, a developer or a real estate finance executive. But he’s on an unusual real estate mission.

The Australian illustrator, who moved to Brooklyn from Los Angeles a year ago, has been preserving New York City real estate as part of a project to sketch all — yes, all — of New York City’s buildings, from the giant Manhattan skyscrapers to the new condos to the old tenements.

According to the city’s Department of Buildings, that means he’ll be putting pen to paper for more than 975,000 buildings in the five boroughs.

Hancock, 33, has already illustrated more than 500 of them and posted them on his website at www.allthebuildingsinnewyork.blogspot.com. He said he can do about five simple black-and-white sketches a day, but more complex buildings take a couple of days or even as long as a week.

Some of the more high-profile buildings he’s already sketched include the New York Stock Exchange in Lower Manhattan; the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue; and the Hearst Tower, Norman Foster’s creation on West 57th Street. But he’s also depicted low-profile brownstones in his Carroll Gardens neighborhood and more industrial structures in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

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Hancock’s sketch of Hearst Tower

“The drawing was like therapy for me, because I was dealing with the initial shock of the city as an outsider,” said Hancock. “And yet the city was also overwhelmingly familiar — I thought, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘West Side Story’ actually exist. So doing the drawings was also about getting to know a place that is now my home, but before looked like a movie set to me.”

The works are all in different media, such as collage, ink, acrylic, Sharpie, rollerball pen and pencil. But they all share an element of whimsicality, and are finished in warm, inviting colors such as magenta, saffron and blue. The result is a city that looks more like a cozy village than an intimidating concrete jungle.

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The artist’s sketch of a building on Bedford Street

While Hancock did not go into the project with real estate intentions, he is selling his images, and the nature of his mission may make colliding with the real estate industry nearly impossible. He was recently approached to draw one building a month for an independent residential Manhattan real estate broker “to jazz up the introduction to each property,” according to Roger Bova, who contacted Hancock after seeing his blog and connected him with the broker.

While the deal fell through, Hancock is hopeful that other such collaborations might emerge. Plus, he said, homeowners have contacted him to memorialize their personal piece of New York City.

For many New Yorkers, there is also an urge to preserve the images of favorite structures, in case they suddenly disappear beneath a wrecking ball. Kaylyn Keane, a creative consultant for advertising agency McGarryBowen, for example, hired Hancock to draw the Seventh Avenue South building that she lived in with her husband for 12 years before they moved to Carroll Gardens.

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Hancock’s sketch of the New Yorker Hotel

“I think it’s a great way to immortalize an old apartment,” Keane said.

Hancock acknowledged that his mission will never really be finished, because “there’s an infinite built environment.

“It’s more of a poetic than a literal quest,” the artist said.

But, he said, he’d like to create a map of all of the buildings he’s drawn so far, so that people can more easily see the progress he’s made. And he has no plans of stopping his documentation.

“I’ve only scratched the surface,” said Hancock. “New York has an amazing ability to hide interesting things.”