Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The James Gordon Bennett Memorial - Herald Square

photo by Jim Henderson

The New York Herald was founded by James Gordon Bennett, Sr. in 1835.  Under his leadership it was the dominant newspaper in the city for most of the century.  Shortly after his death in 1866 James Gordon Bennet, Jr., who was raised in Paris, returned to New York to take the reins.

The junior Bennett brought with him the carefree lifestyle he had enjoyed in France, and his unorthodox behavior sometimes offended well-bred Victorian New Yorkers.  Such was the case in 1877 when he attended the New Year's Day party hosted by his fiancée's parents.  His engagement came to an abrupt end when he urinated in the fireplace.

James Gordon Bennett, Jr.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

In 1893 Bennett engaged the services of McKim, Mead & White to design a new printing plant and headquarters for The Herald far north of Printing House Square on the trapezoid-shaped plot of land facing West 35th Street, bounded by 6th Avenue and Broadway.   Completed in 1895 it was nothing short of a masterwork.

Sanford White based the design on the 1476 Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona, Italy.  But there was obvious influence from the publisher.  James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was obsessed with owls, which he made the symbol of The Herald.  Now 26 four-foot high bronze owls now perched along the cornice of the building.  Those at the corners, with spread wings, had illuminated green glass eyes which glowed eerily on and off with the striking of the two clocks embedded into the facade--one symbolic of Wisdom, the other of Industry.

The massive grouping dominated the roof line.  The two clock faces flank the central second story windows and bronze owls stand guard all along the cornice.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The striking of that clock seemed to be accomplished by two massive figures in printers' aprons under the watchful eye of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, whose traditional attendant was an owl.  The massive bronze grouping was executed by French sculptor Antonin Jean Carlès, personally chosen by Bennett.  On the hour and the half-hour, the mechanized typesetters were set into action, swinging mallets against a large bronze bell atop which perched yet another owl.

At noon on March 21, 1895 the clock was first set into action.  The Editor & Publisher wrote that "thousands of persons cluttered up the neighborhood and gazed at the two figures."

The mechanical typesetters--given the names Guff and Stuff by New Yorkers--clanged out the hours for nearly nearly three decades--during rain, snow and summer heat--as busy pedestrians scurried by below.   The colorful James Gordon Bennett, Jr. died in 1918 and three years later, on May 12, 1921 the New-York Tribune ran the headline: Old Herald Building Soon to Come Down.  It added "The heroic bronze smiths, known as Guff and Stuff, who had been striking out the hours night and day on the big bell on top of the southern façade of the building for the last twenty-eight years, and the goggling owls that had watched from their lofty perch on top of the building during those years were removed last month, for they were the property of the late Mr. Bennett." 

One calculation put the total number of mallet thumps by Guff and Stuff at 3,188,680.

Thankfully for posterity, Bennett's unnatural love for owls had prompted him to retain personal ownership of the bronzes as well as the sculptural clock grouping.  All of the statuary was carefully crated and stored.

Nearly two decades later a committee of businessmen in the Herald Square area was formed to erect a memorial to Bennett.  The men raised $10,000 (just under $180,000 today) and the well-known architect Aymar Embury II received the commission to design the structure.

As ground was broken on July 3, 1940 The New York Times reported "The proposed new forty-foot granite monument of modified Italian Renaissance design, with its double-faced clock and the two bronze owls, will serve as a background and base for the bronze group...The statue and bell will face south in front of a niche flanked by Corinthian pilasters, the upper part of which contains the clock and two of the owls of which the younger Bennett was so fond."

photo by the author
Although the monument included a lengthy inscription about Bennett and his contributions, The Times essentially ignored him when it reported on the unveiling on November 19 that year.  The newspaper referred to it as "Minerva and the Bell-ringers."  The article ended saying "The ceremonies will end at 6 P. M. with the striking of the clock, the ringing of the bells by 'Stuff' and 'Guff,' and the eyes of the owls blinking again for the first time in twenty years."

The spread-winged owls with their blinking green eyes were salvaged from the Herald Building's corners.  Both clock faces from the Herald facade survived, now back-to-back atop the monument.  photo by the author
The clock and its figures got a make-over in 1989 when Stuff began moving forward and actually making contact with the bell with his mallet, causing damage.  The clock, the granite and the figures were cleaned and conserved and, $200,000 later, emerged looking as they did in 1940.  Others of the reclaimed bronze owls perch on posts around the triangular park.

photo by the author


  1. Love this monument - the blinking owls are fascinating - and love Gordon Bennett! He was an accomplished, hard working man but he's remembered for urinating in a fireplace, which I think is pretty cool. When ya gotta go....

  2. How about the owl on the moon credcent on the iron entrance door to the clockwork in the back with
    the inscription in French:
    La Nuit porte Conseil. Best G