Grotesque Figures Carved on Modern Skyscrapers (Oct, 1933)

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Grotesque Figures Carved on Modern Skyscrapers

A BOY with a bean shooter, a lone fisherman, rats climbing up hawsers are among the strange objects that be found upon modern skyscrapers or apartment houses. Thousands of people have passed through the buildings thus adorned without ever having seen these figures, or if seen there was no recognition of their purpose. Sometimes the architect has played a joke upon the unsuspecting owner, installing a queer figure in so inaccessible a place that only a person with a telescope could examine it. In other cases, the figures have a real, if unconventional, symbolism and are, in a way, the modern equivalents of the gargoyles and statues of medieval architecture.

A whimsical architect is said to be responsible for a group of figures in the ceiling of the main entrance to a fashionable church in Fifth Avenue, New York. These are placed high enough to be all but invisible. They are believed to depict the types of people that the architect expected to attend the church; among those represented are the comic-paper symbols for the banker, the merchant, the professional man, the idle millionaire, and even the waster with his monocle! One expensive apartment house, with an ultra-modern scheme of decoration, presents a series of panels carved to satirize the landlord, the automobile mechanic, the stenographer, and the modern girl, the iceman, and the comedy figure of a janitor.

Photographs on these pages show what unusual sculpture our cameraman found on a tour of New York City’s newest and most famous buildings.

4 comments
  1. Torgo says: July 14, 20085:56 pm

    I love these things. One of the highlights of living in New York.

  2. ratpack7 says: July 17, 20083:09 am

    To bad nobody in todays society ever looks up. There missing great works of art by being self absorbed staring at the ground.

  3. g663 says: July 29, 20085:40 am

    The advent of concrete construction on a wide scale in the 1920s no doubt made these things ubiquitous: one needed only to carve a design into a block of wood, like a 3-D photographic negative, and set it into the formwork. Then the concrete was poured, and some weeks later, the forms stripped to reveal the works of the anonymous sculptors. Some of this was probably done by the construction workers themselves, some by architects.

    The idea of sneaking a bit of whimsy into an otherwise staid, serious, and most importantly, expensive building, would have tickled the fancy of everyone involved, with added merriment to be had when the owner passed through the entrance without noticing the clever comedies occurring overhead. Or better yet, when an owner made comments that seemed to misinterpret the scuplture as something straight-laced, as if to set humorous limericks to classical music. “There once was a man from Manhattan…”

    As with today’s crop circles, one wishes that the artists would step forward and say even a few words about the ideas behind their designs. However, in both cases, the anonymity factor sparks curiosity and speculation, adding to the viewer’s appreciation of the work itself. And today, we can visit our nearest large city with binoculars, on a visual treasure hunt to see if we can spot any of these things for ourselves.

  4. MadRat says: January 9, 200910:17 am

    Years ago I saw a picture of the rats and I’ve been trying to find them again ever since. Turns out where I saw them was on the Roadside America website. (http://www.roadsideamer…) The rats are on the Graybar Building (make sure you read both of those Rs) at 420 Lexington Ave. in Manhattan. I don’t know about the other carvings.
    It’s hard to tell but “The rosettes from which the ropes emanate are adorned with rat heads.” There are also other beautiful art deco adornments on the building. From what I’ve read no one knows why the rats are there. Who knows, the architects did other nautical themed buildings so maybe they had something left over from one of them and/or didn’t want it to go to waste? Anyway you can see some recent pictures and information here: http://www.flickr.com/p…

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