In New York City, you have a lot to watch out for as you walk around. This is unfortunate, as the necessity of keeping your eyes on the ground or around you prevents you from seeing the incredibly wealth of architectural curiosities staring at you from above doorways and beneath windows. I decided to organize a little walking tour one fine, chilly day so that we might get some exercise, get out of our usual stomping grounds, and have a chance to seek out some of this city’s gargoyles, demons, dragons, leaf men, and the other stone and terra-cotta creatures that watch over us without us ever knowing. Along the way, we hoped to also stumble upon a few other curiosity and city sights we didn’t expect.
The journey started on 94th Street and Broadway, at a secret little passage called Pomander Walk. Built in 1921 by nightclub owner Thomas J. Healy, the courtyard was originally intended to be a hotel. When Healy couldn’t secure financing, he commissioned the building of the quaint, country-style houses which he intended to rent until he built up enough cash to knock them down and build his hotel. The complex is named after Pomander Walk, a play from 1910. Healy’s hotel never came to pass, and Pomander Walk remains “an insertion of incredible whimsy” hidden away on the Upper West Side. Unfortunately for curiosity seekers, Pomander Walk is private, so unless you happen across the super and he is willing to let you in for a peek, the best vantage point from which one can hope to glimpse the place is from beneath the Pomander Walk sign on 94th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
From there we headed to 96th St. and Riverside Drive for a peek and the strange Cliff Dwelling building, finished in 1916 and covered in strange Aztec and Native American terra-cotta etchings. At some point, as I understand it, the building also sported the Hindu religious symbol the swastika — a meaningful symbol that has an unfortunate and unfair association with the Nazis, who co-opted and corrupted it for their own use. I could not find the swastikas on the building, so maybe they’ve been removed to avoid the inevitable controversy? Still that leaves behind plenty of Aztec gods, spears, buffalo, and skulls.
After that marvel, we were off to Rice Mansion on 89th Street and Riverside, across from the Soldiers and Sailors monument. Back in the last decade of the 19th century, there was a push to turn Riverside Drive into the premiere place to live in the city. In pursuit of this goal, many well-to-do people build mansions along the drive overlooking the Hudson River. Although Riverside today is indeed a very upscale neighborhood, all of the mansions are gone except for Rice Mansion, built by lawyer Isaac L. Rice. Sadly, the school that bought the building in the 1950s seems to have no interest in the building’s history or in maintaining it. As a result, the mansion is in shoddy condition, but if you use a little imagination and ignore the peeling paint, crumbling gutters, and piles of cheap plastic toys out front, it’s still possible to see what it must have been like upon its completion in 1903. En route there, we also stumbled across a Joan of Arc statue erected in 1915, keeping watch over the neighborhood.
We strolled up and down a few streets spying interesting turreted tenements and one entrance that looked like it belonged to a hobbit, before finally making our way to 82nd Street between West End Ave and Broadway to find an evil jester leering at us from a building on the north side of the street. From there we hit 82nd through 85th streets between Columbus and Central Park West, These blocks of stately brownstones and offices are positively crammed to bursting with all manner of gargoyles, dragons, mythological green men, demons, and at least one relief that was maybe two parrots fighting, or maybe a parrot fighting a prawn? I dubbed this area Monster Alley, and one could spend practically a whole day just on these blocks.
After sandwiches and something warm to drink at Simit + Smith, we sought out some angels staring down at us from a bright brick red building on Columbus between 77th and 78th, readers and sea serpents on the front of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, we ended up staring at a row of menacing tongue-waggling demons peering at us from a building on 9th Ave between 52nd and 53rd street. Two residents of the building asked us what we were looking at. When we pointed out the hideous demons adorning their building, one of them excitedly exclaimed, “We have gargoyles on our building!?!” Which is pretty much exactly what the point of the entire day’s excursion was: to suddenly notice all those strange things you walk by every single day without ever realizing it. I like to think that from now on, every time someone comes over to visit those guys, they will point out the demons of which they are now so proud.
We ducked into a bar called Valhalla to thaw out and have a beer or two before venturing further afield. After that constitutional restorative, we were off to Times Square to wrap things up. First up were rows of large immortals somewhere near 7th avenue between 47th and 49th street. I know some time ago, the venerable century-old building adorned by these impressive gods and goddesses was in danger, and we were unable to find it. So maybe it’s gone? Or maybe we just weren’t looking in the right place. Disappointing if it’s gone. From the photos I’ve seen, it looked gorgeous.
Not to be deterred, we proceeded on to the spooky ram skulls adorning the outside of what was once the Lamb Theater and is now the Lamb’s Club, an upscale cocktail bar and restaurant with exceptionally good cocktails I can’t really afford to have more than that one time we dropped in. But admiring the creepy skulls lining their building is blessedly free and a satisfying macabre sight amid the family-friendly glitz and theme restaurants of Times Square. We found a couple other evil winged devils and gargoyles staring at us from other buildings, perched under windows beneath unsuspecting office workers who probably have no idea what’s lurking just below the window sill. After that we headed to 40th Street between 39th and 40th to see the row of philosophers waxing poetic on a building on the north side of the street, being stared at by a row of fools from across the street. No idea if that was intentional, but it works well.
With the light failing us, we had to hot foot it past Nikola Tesla Corner, past the old Engineers Club, and past Tesla’s old laboratory across from the south side of Bryant Park. On the steps of the venerable New York Public Library on 42nd Street, we gazed up at our final sight: a woman in a Greek tunic holding a severed head. An odd thing indeed to see peering back at you from the front of one of the country’ most prestigious libraries, but almost no one sees it since few people look up or remain undistracted by the more photogenic lions that guard the building. Our initial guess was that it was the Biblical Judith, but the Library’s website says it is merely Drama, being dramatic as usual by chopping someone’s head off.
By then, the winter light was fading, the temperature was plunging well past freezing, and we were ready to retire to St. Andrews to warm ourselves with whisky and snacks. It was a wonderful chance to see the city we walk through without ever seeing. Thanks to everyone who braved the frigid temperatures to snag a look at the things hidden right in plain view. I look forward to doing the same sort of walk up and down the East Side, Herald Square, and the East Village, among other neighborhoods. I also want to thank Scouting NY, Ephemeral New York, Gargoyles of New York, and The Monster Walks for providing essential information for planning. Great sites, all, and I intend to exploit their incredibly amount of information as frequently as possible in the future. I think we will wait until it’s not 25 degrees outside, though.