A Fast-Paced Novel and Paean to Tribeca's Architecture

"The Gargoyle Hunters" author John Freeman Gill. Photo: Derek Shapton

May. 22, 2017

The ever-changing and inexorable evolution of New York City is as much the central character of John Freeman Gill’s debut novel “The Gargoyle Hunters” as his quirky protagonists. As a journalist who specializes in writing about architecture and real estate, Gill has perfected the art of architectural description and portrays with loving precision the buildings of Tribeca and others in the city that we take for granted.

Our guides are 13-year-old Griffin, an aimless boy, and his architecturally obsessed father whose trade is salvaging sculptures including gargoyles from buildings on the verge of demolition, or doing some light-fingered preservation for structures that are in no danger at all. Early on, he urges his son to pay attention to the wonders around him: “You are not going to be another of those blinkered goddamn New Yorkers who walk around town staring at their shoes, or worse, have their eyes so fixed on whatever goal they’re hurrying towards that they never see the city around them.

This is 1970s New York, before smartphone zombies who never look up from their devices even to cross the road. There’s clearly a large dose of autobiographical detail here, including the location of Griffin’s home. (Gill grew up in a similar Upper East Side brownstone.) The fictional boy lives here with his mother, sister and a cast of bizarre lodgers taken in to help pay the mortgage.

His father, meanwhile, lives in a crumbling loft in Tribeca, terra incognita to Griffin at the start of the novel. The “pioneer” days of the neighborhood as it transitioned from warehouse district to artist outpost are vividly portrayed and there are many local references to landmarks and familiar sites, such as Morgan's market at Reade and Hudson, are still here. The Italian restaurant Sole di Capri on Church Street also gets a shout out as the location of Griffin’s adult reunions with his sister.

But it is the real-life mystery of a long gone cast iron building in Tribeca that forms the central plot line of this coming-of-age story.  

As Griffin learns to navigate both the city and the emotional void caused by his parents’ divorce, his father is scheming to rebuild the 1849 Bogardus building that used to stand at Murray and Washington Street—now the site, at 111 Murray Street, of an under-construction 58-story residential tower.

In the novel, it has recently been dismantled as part of the Washington Street Urban Renewal Project that would eventually make way for a large swath of todays Tribeca west of Greenwich Street. That part is true, as is the fact that the pieces of the building were stolen and most were never seen again. How and why Griffin’s father acquires the building’s parts become the nail-biting, dramatic conclusion to the book that also includes a vertiginous trip to the tower atop the Woolworth Building for some misguided cultural preservation. If you suffer from vertigo skip this chapter. Its realistic description of dicing with death on the 53rd floor is not for the fainthearted.

While the premise of the story is intriguing and characters are finely wrought for the most part, the father’s mania for buildings is not fully convincing. This character’s tendency to make speeches about architectural history sometimes gives the reader the impression they have turned the page into an academic journal. Nevertheless, Gill’s affection for the city and the Seventies era is infectious.  

The book prompted me to dig out my binoculars to take a closer look at the Woolworth Building among others and savor the details around us while they are still here. Gill has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ghosts of buildings past. But as he remarks towards the end of the novel, he is also thrilled by what comes next: “…however much we might mourn what the city is doing to itself, the damned place never fails to regenerate.”

It is this appreciation of the living city that is the star of  “The Gargoyle Hunters.”