Owls in Manhattan

Herald Square
Herald Square on a sunny afternoon

James Gordon Bennett Jr. was obsessed. His obsession was quite unusual – it was owls. Some of them, with flickering eyes, can be seen on Herald Square, guarding James Gordon Bennett Monument.

Herald Square takes its name from the New York Herald, a newspaper founded by James Gordon Bennett Sr and inherited by Gordon Bennett Jr. In 1894 he hired Stamford White to design a building for the Herald located at the present day Herald Square. The beautiful classically designed structure was decorated by a sculpture group representing Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and two printers tirelessly swinging their hammers to toll the hour. The cornice of the Herald building was decorated by a small army of owls.

Herald Building by Stanford White
Herald Building designed by Stanford White

The building was demolished in 1921, but the sculpture group remained as a free-standing monument. Few owls stayed around the statue spooking passers-by by the green flickering of their eyes. The eye sockets of the owls contain electric lights, which at night flash on and off. Stranger yet, there was supposed to be another owl – a giant which was to serve as a Gordon Bennett’s mausoleum. According to his vision, this owl was supposed to be 125-foot feet high, resting on 75 feet pedestal, and hollow inside. Visitors would climb up to its eyes which doubled up as windows offering a glorious view to Manhattan. The coffin was to be suspended from its ceiling by giant chains. The project never materialized as the proposed architect, Stanford White, was murdered by a deranged jealous husband of his past lover.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.
James Gordon Bennett Jr.

In the center of this most unusual story is one of the most eccentric personalities of Gilded Age New York – James Gordon Bennett Jr. A “sporting men” who loved his many yachts, enjoyed fast carriage rides through the city in the nude and indulged in serious imbibing. Being one of the wealthiest bachelors in New York, he was engaged to socialite Caroline May. One fateful night, he showed up at the house of his fiance during a high society gathering and decided to relieve himself into a fireplace. The gesture led to a scandal, following which Gordon Bennett left New York for France. He did settle down eventually at the ripe age of 73.

Stuff and Guff
Stuff and Guff at work on Herald Square

The printers named Stuff and Guff are pretending to hit the bell every hour (they don’t quite touch the bell), Minerva is sharing her wisdom with the masses and the door on the back on the monument is inscribed with five stars, an owl and the legend ‘La Nuit Porte Conseil’ which translates loosely as “Let’s sleep on it.” I wonder what it means…

The door at the back of the James Gordon Bennett Monument
The door at the back of the James Gordon Bennett Monument

Sources/further reading:
NY Times: In Herald Square, A Monument Is Ready For Action
Atlas Obscura: Manhattan Was Almost Home to a 200-Foot-Tall Owl Mausoleum
Daytonian in Manhattan: Herard Square’s James Gordon Bennett Monument
Today I found out: A cow on a yacht – the fascinating life of Gordon Bennett Jr.
MENTAL FLOSS: The Fabulously Eccentric Life of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Olga says:

    Awesome article! Interesting information.

    Like

  2. Iren says:

    Thanks! I’ve been passing by them so often and was wondering. So happy you liked it!

    Like

  3. Lana says:

    Fascinating!!!! Very well written! Looking forward to reading all the stories on this blog!

    Like

  4. Anonymous says:

    another way of translating La Nuit Porte Conseil is The night brings good council and that sits well next to the image of Minerva. Fascinating story, thanks Iren.

    Like

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