Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Herard Square's James Gordon Bennett Monument

Think you know your New York trivia?  Who are Stuff and Guff?  Give up? 

They are the bronze printers (I hate it when they are called "blacksmiths") in their leather printer's aprons on the James Gordon Bennett Monument in Herald Square.  Wielding their bronze hammers and striking the huge bell hourly, these mechanical sculptures are a part of one of the strangest and most-recognized memorials in the city -- the James Gordon Bennett Monument.

What may be even unique about the monument is that it started out life as something else.  The great bronze animated sculpture originally crowned the New York Herald building, the 1894 home of Bennett's newspaper.  Its triangular site faced 35th Street, just above what is now Herald Square, a beautifully landscaped urban garden oasis.

The sculpture served a dual purpose; tolling the hours on the giant clock on the building's south face and symbolizing Bennett's ideals of the newspaper:  wisdom and industry.

Athena, goddess of wisdom stands over the two blue-collar bell-ringers, extending her right arm while holding a shield and spear in the other.  Along the roofline of the Herald Building, she was attended by great bronze owls, also symbols of wisdom -- two with their wings spread at the corners, two standing guard midway on either side and, as seen in the vintage photo, an army of owls along the eaves.

photo NYPL Collection
  Bennett died in 1918 and in 1921 the building was razed.  All of the bronze statuary was removed, stored away, and in a surprisingly early example of historic preservation was recycled into the 40-foot tall memorial which was unveiled with great fanfare in November 1940.

Today tourists flock to Herald Square, waiting patiently for the two bronze printers to swing into action, banging the huge bell on the hour.  Well, they don't actually bang the bell; they come very close to doing so.  Mechanized clappers inside the bell are synchronized with the movements of the 7-foot tall figures, thus preventing damage to the sculpture. 

Look closely at the bell and you'll see it is inscribed in large letters NEW YORK.  And those owls survived too.  The two with their wings spread are perched on either side of the clock, their eyes blinking green lights (hardly anyone ever notices that) while others found a home on the stone entrances to the park.

The clock and its figures got a make-over in 1989 when Stuff began moving forward and actually touching the bell with his sledgehammer, causing damage.  $200,000 later the clock, the granite and the figures were all cleaned, restored and looking as they did back in 1940.

If you're around Herald Square and have a moment, pause and wait for Stuff and Guff to grind into action, swinging their hammers to toll the hour.  It's worth the wait.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. I never noticed the owls' blinking eyes. Next time...

  2. stick around me, you'll learn things! :-)

  3. Please write something about Gimbels and the bridge that connects from the Manhattan mall building to the next building across which is closed. There was also a tunnel that connected from 6th avenue to 7th avenue under the Manhattan mall.