Tuesday, April 2, 2013

From the Archives: The Owls in Herald Square

Today our 34th Street archivist, Anne Kumer, tells us about the owls in Herald Square. This post also appears on NYC Circa.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s adoration of owls may have bordered on pathological, but in the best possible way. While serving as a Third Lieutenant for the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (the pre-Coast Guard Coast Guard) during the Civil War, the son of New York Herald founder James Gordon Bennett Sr. claimed that a serendipitous owl guided him through rough seas to safety.

As a tribute to his spirit animal, he lined the Herald building with several bronze owls in 1894, and years later even had an owl shaped tomb designed to hold his remains. The Herald owls, along with the statue of Minerva and the bell ringers, were created by French sculptor Antonin Jean Carles. The two corner owls with their wings spread had eyes that lit up to the delight of evening passersby.

The Herald building in the early 1900s, looking north from 34th Street. Statuary from the Bennett monument in Herald Square is on the facade of the building along with Bennett's owls.

Today those two owls perch on either side of the Herald monument, and their eyes continue to light the way.
Back of the Herald Square monument, facing south. Photo: 34SP, Jacob Bielecki

Two more of Bennet's owls guard the entrance to Herald Square.

Entrance owl. Photo 34SP, Jacob Bielecki
The Herald building may have been Bennett's most well known tribute to the bird, but it wasn't his first. At some point in the mid 1800s Bennett bought a stone villa in Newport Rhode Island, originally built in 1833 by Rhode Island stonemason Alexander McGregor. The new homeowner enlisted the help of Newport architect Dudley Newton to add several embellishments to the property, including gateposts topped with owl statuary. It's hard to see in this picture, but these look to be a leaner species than the Herald owls, but no less fierce.

Bennett's stone villa and owl sentries in 1957, shortly before the building was demolished to make way for a shopping center. Photo: Preservation Society of Newport County
So solid was his devotion to the bird, he also had Stanford White design a 200-foot high tomb shaped like an owl that would serve as Bennett's mausoleum. Work was halted due to the untimely but not entirely surprising death of Stanford White in 1906. The design never came to be, but the Times reported that in 1918, shortly after Bennett's death, drawings of a model owl tomb were found on the desk of sculptor Andrew O'Conner, who had been commissioned by White to work on the initial designs.

That same year Frank Munsey, then owner of the New York Sun bought out the Herald, combined the two papers, and moved the offices to 42nd Street. The owls were removed from the facade of the Herald building. A few have since resurfaced: aside from the Herald Square owls mentioned above, the Brooklyn Museum has a couple on display, and there are a few above the entrance to NYU's Shimkin Hall.