The goofy grotesques of Morningside Heights

Morningside Heights is another New York neighborhood that seems to be filled with these wonderful, whimsical stone carvings.

                           Designers of Morningside Heights’ stately apartment buildings may have been influenced by Columbia University on 116th Street.

Or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 110th Street served as the inspiration.

Or maybe it was just the timing; gargoyles and grotesques were popular with architects around the turn of the century, when the West Side blocks of the 90s and 100s were developed.

Whatever inspired their creation, these grotesques are charming to encounter, especially the silly guys at the Brittania at 527 West 110th Street.

A scholar. A soup-cooker. A soup gobbler. A chicken eater. (A chicken eater?) These limestone ornaments are found all along the circa-1909 building.

“Hands off my rotisserie chicken!” he seems to be saying. In fact, a 2009 New York Times article reveals that the grotesques are meant to symbolize “some form of the homely art of housekeeping.”

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10 Responses to “The goofy grotesques of Morningside Heights”

  1. nyc edges Says:

    Great pictures and what a great building!
    from the NYT link “….he had them experiment with a more distinctive, lower building — only nine stories. Revenue was sacrificed for architectural effect.”
    We’ll never see that again

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    No, too bad. But at least we have these carvings to amuse us.

  3. focusoninfinity Says:

    These should be on some monumental building in Washington with facial similarities, and deeds similarities to the Presidents, or Vice Presidents, that done did them. Like one VP with a bag of bribes, one President ‘not’ getting sex, another declaring “Victory” in Iraq, etc.

  4. Jean Says:

    I don’t spend a lot of time in Morningside Heights, but we’re going to an event there on Saturday and I’m so glad to have read this article before that. Will definitely keep my eyes peeled for these now! Thanks!

  5. Parnassus Says:

    Just shows how it pays to keep your eyes peeled when taking a walk. Older buildings like this are especially interesting, and are in fact a hobby of mine. But don’t dismiss newer buildings as “modern atrocities”; they often possess beautiful materials, proportions, etc.
    –Road to Parnassus

  6. Joe R Says:

    These gargoyles remind me a bit of those at City College, not too far away, that was built around the same time as this building.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Oh, I love those. My favorite character is this one:

    • T.J. Connick Says:

      A connection exists: Arthur E. Willauer, on behalf of George B. Post, was in charge of design work on the City College job, and, as partner in Waid & Willauer, was the architect of the Britannia.

      He is better known for the Candler Building and 50 Broad Street, both completed following his death in 1912, aged 36. At the time he was senior partner at Willauer, Shape and Bready.

      Beware persnickety architecture heads. They may bark if you say it’s a gargoyle when it’s not acting as, or mimicking, a waterspout. Think gargle. Both words are shoots from the same branch.

  7. Bob_in_MA Says:

    The Washington (iDC) Cathedral has a lot of cool gargoyles and someone did a documentary on the carvers. (they didn’t finish until the 1980s or ’90s) They explained that many of the characters were their friends, or each other. One I remember had a bag of gulf clubs. Probably hard to see with the unaided eye, but was obvious when looked at closely.

  8. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    TERRIFIC! This was a fascinating story and the close-up photographs were a delight. THANKS!
    I too, am very fond of the ‘somewhat similar’ adornments at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. I own a small artwork copy – a ‘crooked lawyer’, (tip’n a Scales of Justice while sport’n a wad of dollars in his pocket!)
    The structure there is full of wonder and amusing and glorious attractions. The very gifted sculptor Fred Hart’s entry artwork on the face of the building is breath-takingly magnificent and worthy of such an important place.
    A touching story about it’s construction
    (and if this is NOT TRUE, I really don’t want to know it…)
    is about a cathedral mason whose wife died while he was toiling on the great church. He asked if her ashes could be entombed in the lower-level columbarium. His request was rejected. The sympathetic Dean of the Church climbed steep scaffolding to counsel with the mason. He explained the limited space was being set aside for future figures-of-national-importance. The mason smiled at the Church Official, slapped a trowel of mortar atop a stone and whispered:
    “Don’t worry. My wife’s ashes will ALWAYS be part of this place.” Then he looked downward at the gray mixture before him, smiled and set another stone atop the thick, moist mortar, serving to hold the cathedral together…

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