Owls With Glowing Eyes in Herald Square

I took this picture of Herald Square (6th Ave btw. 34th & 35th) this morning at about 6:45. A second later, I took the following picture. See if you can pick out the difference. Hint: the change is only a few pixels in size.

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If you noticed it, no, you’re not going crazy.

Let’s get a bit closer.  Perched on top of the James Gordon Bennett monument are a pair of bronze owls. And throughout the night, every second or two…

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…their eyes light up a brilliant shade of eerie green:

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And this is not a recent addition: these eyes have been lighting up green for more than 100 years.

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a reader named DJ, telling me about happening to stumble upon the owls at night. “They are kind of creepy,” he wrote, “but it was one of those times where I said to myself that is what NY is all about.” This morning, as I was out scouting Times Square in its pre-trafficked hours, I had a chance to swing by, and I have to agree: surprises like this are what make NY such a great city to explore.

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This monument marks the location of the former New York Herald building, torn down in 1921. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the newspaper’s publisher, was obsessed with owls: he kept a few live ones in his office, collected stuffed specimens, and had even planned to be buried in a 125-foot owl-shaped tomb in Washington Heights, perched on a 75-foot pedestal (unfortunately, this project never materialized due to the death of architect Stanford White).

Bennett had the roof of the Herald building adorned with bronze owl statues, whose eyes lit up when nearby clocks tolled the hour. When the building was razed, its statuary was saved along with its clocks (whose working components date back to 1895). They were later incorporated into the monument to Bennett, built in 1940.

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Nowadays, the eyes blink continually throughout the night, alternating about every other second.

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Two of the owl statues now reside in the Brooklyn Museum of Art:

A closer look at the western owl:

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This picture, taken in 1920, was shot just south of 34th Street on 6th Ave, and you can see the old Herald building in the background (at the time, 6th Ave had an elevated train track):

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A closer look at the Herald building, taken in 1910. You can see the two clocks that were saved for the monument, as well as the owls lining the roof. Also removed was the 10-foot statue of Minerva in the center…

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…which is why most people take the time to look at the Bennett memorial today. Every hour, Minerva’s blacksmiths, Stuff & Guff, pound out the hour (in reality, their hammers never connect; the sound is actually created by two mallets hidden inside the bell)(thanks for sharing the pic, Veridia!):

Herald Square

On the rear of the monument is this access door (thanks for sharing the pic, selva!)…

la nuit porte conseil

…Which features this strange emblem:

entrance

According to the NY Times, the French saying is translated idiomatically as “Let’s sleep on it.” The presence of a moon, an owl, and 5 five-pointed stars has led conspiracy theorists to claim it as evidence of Bennett’s involvement in a secret society (apparently, owls are a common motif). The fact that there is no known explanation for it certainly adds fuel to the fire.

I’ve walked past this monument dozens of times at night and never noticed the owls watching me with their glowing green eyes. I love when New York feels spooky.

Big thanks again to DJ for emailing this tip.

-SCOUT

Sources/further reading:
NY Times: In Herald Square, A Monument Is Ready For Action
Brooklyn Museum: Standing Owl, from Herald Building
Forgotten Delights: Bell-Ringers Monument
Conspiracy Archive: Owl of Minerva

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34 comments

  1. Whoa! I literally jumped in my skin when I blew up the second photo and saw those creepy green eyes!

    That’s amazing. I’ve never noticed that phenomenon, although I’ve passed that monument a gazillion times. I guess it’s always been in the day time!

    Thanks for the photo of the old Herald building–what a beautiful structure.

    You know, I used to collect owls, too, but I confess it never occurred to me to be buried in an owl-shaped tomb…

  2. Also? “Let’s sleep on it” is such a prosaic translation, however idiomatic, for “The night brings counsel,” which is more significant given the presence of the owl.

  3. Now I see the difference between the first two! Very interesting. I was thinking of taking a trip to this spot sometime this week anyway – now I definitely will!

  4. I love your site and I actually noticed this for the first time one evening late last week as I was walking home from work on my usual route. I even thought of e-mailing it. Small coincidence. I had assumed the light-up eyes were installed to keep pigeons from roosting on the monument and it’s interesting to read the background. I’ve never stopped and looked at the monument and had no idea about the bell ringing. Very cool.

  5. That’s pretty awesome. I’m actually looking forward to leaving work late next week so I can see this, haha.

  6. I love this post! Seriously, those owls are too cool.

  7. Since the French word for “door” is “porte”, I think someone who loves puns came up with this door design.

  8. Great site–I found it by searching for “Bennett Monument owl eyes”. I noticed the green eyes while walking home from work today. I’ve walked by this statue plenty of times (it’s on the way home after all) and for some reason today I looked up and wasn’t sure I was seeing what I was seeing.

    Very eerie but also VERY cool. You did a great job writing it up also…somehow made an amazing corner of the city even better.

  9. Amazing, thanks for sharing this.
    For the record, in the last sentences you mention a French saying ‘La Nuit Porte Conseil’, it literally translates to: ‘The Night Bears Advice’.

  10. WOW! I pass by there so often, I’ve never noticed them before and I love owls! I guess because I dislike midtown and try to stay below 23rd street as much as possible. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I think I can shed some light on the unusual symbol on the door of the statue of Minerva and her blacksmiths…

    Ancient Greece and Rome both shared the same Gods, the Romans simply renamed them. Minerva is the Roman name for the famous Greek God of wisdom, Athena. The owl with large, empty, round eyes is a common symbol for her. The owl depicted on that strange emblem on the door is the symbol of Athena (Minerva) and the very same owl can be found in many works of art associated with Athena such as the famous sculpture, Athena Parthenos.

    The crescent moon and the french saying however are beyond me haha

  12. These are some amazing shots {old & new} of Herald Square. I’m not going to lie…I’ve been living in that neighborhood for years and the owl’s light-up eyes still creep me out!

  13. The timing of today’s post is a pretty crazy coincidence. See today’s post at Shorpy: http://www.shorpy.com/Herald-Square-New-York-1908

    Be sure to click ‘original size’….

  14. whoa — looks like i’m getting al ittle lost here. hmm, must have clicked here from someone at shorpy. i need to go back to bed….

  15. EXCELLENT…..THANKS………….JACK R. ENGLISH…75…WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF……..LOCATION MGR, COPPOLA’S ……..”GODFATHER, PT 2″, APOCALYPSE NOW”, ETC…. ETC……….& ACTOR ON ORIGINAL “NYPD” , NYC TV SERIES, 1966, 1967…AS RECURRING..ROOKIE NYC COP……..WITH ROBERT DUVAL, JACK WARDEN, ROBERT HOOKS, ETC & LOTS OF NYC LOCATIONS…………..THANSK FOR THE 60’S MEMORIES………..JACK

  16. I noticed many people made the comment that they had never noticed those owls before. Not that I’m trying to diss anyone but in todays fast paced society, nobody seems to have the time to pause and look heavenward, therefore missing out on a lot of cool and awe inspiring things. We sure live in different times today and that’s a real big factor in why so many of these beautiful grand old buildings are going to such waist. It blows my mind. I would like to say to you Scout, thank-you for posting your work. I stumbled upon it by accident. To me it’s like a trip back in time, back when life moved at a much slower pace for sure. Looking forward to the rest of the tour.

  17. Yellowlees Douglas

    James Gordon Bennett might be all but forgotten in the US today, but his name lives on in the UK in the form of everyday slang. When Brits see or hear something unusual (as when a guy in Washington Square Park propositioned my ex mother-in-law), they mutter, “Bleedin’ Gordon Bennett.” The turn of phrase came from Bennett’s tendency to play practical jokes in public, like jerking tablecloths out from under diners’ noses. (Bennett always paid up for the damage.) Given that owls and Minerva are symbols of wisdom, one wonders if Bennett was trying to gain some himself–or just used his practical jokes as a means of blowing off steam while running a newspaper empire.

  18. So is this a city monument maintained by the city?????

  19. Thanks for all this great stuff. I am reading this in Brisbane Australia. I loved New York when I visited (only twice so far) and look forward to coming back and exploring some of the sensational locations like this one from Scouting NY.

  20. According to Lee Gelber, the owls’ eyes flash when the Herald is supposed to be printing the next day’s edition.

    I suppose that that leads to another pun, since the paper is put to bed before it is printed.

  21. Wow, I noticed those owls green eyes years ago at Christmas time, maybe perhaps from looking at all the colorful Xmas lights!! I told my friend to stop & look up at that “gargoyal” I thought it was!! She saw the eyes lit up, now to see it on this site is just such a trip! Thanks!

  22. “Beware The Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
    ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.
    They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed,
    speak not a whispered word of them or they’ll send The Talon for your head.”

    This is actually really cool. Great article. It did remind me a lot of Batman thought. :P

  23. How do the green eyes glow? You never answered and it’s driving me crazy…

  24. Dear Scout,

    What a wonderful, informative site. Your photos are great and your text is outstanding. I live in Maryland and make it to NYC only infrequently, but on my next trip, a stroll through Herald Square in the dark is a must.

    I would like to ask a favor — a copy of a photo and your permission to republish it. I am writing a book about the Gordon Bennett Air Races (1909-13 and 1920). The “Gordon Bennetts,” the first series of international air races, were flown three times in France, once in England, twice in the United States, and saw winning speed increase from 47 mph to almost 200 mph. Currently (it’s early days), I begin the book with a short chapter about Herald Square. I would like to have permission to republish one of your photos with an owl’s glowing green eyes.

    Already asking one favor, I’ll ask another. Do you have a hi res photo of the entire memorial? I have a photo from the NYC Dept of Art and Antiquities, but it’s not hi res.

    I am writing the book on spec (although I have a book about the Pulitzer Air Races, 1920-25, and all-US affairs in press, I have no idea about the fate of the Gordon Bennett one when it’s finished). Writing with no advance and no guarantee of any money, I would like your photos and permission to republish for free or for the smallest possible fee. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s not.

    Best wishes for the happiest of holidays and New Year, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Mike Gough
    301 229 3532
    P.O. Box 112
    Glen Echo, MD 20812

  25. At least one of Bennet’s biographers say that while patrolling in his yacht during the Civil War, he’d fallen asleep and was about to run aground when he was awoken by an owl. He considered the bird a talisman after that. As a notorious rakehell and boozer,Bennet’s “falling asleep” rings true, at least.

  26. Why did the New York Herald building have two different clocks with two different times? Thank you

  27. …It’s a real life Nancy Drew Game.

  28. Good day! I just want to offer you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info
    you’ve got here on this post. I will be coming back to your site for more
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  29. Nick, I want to thank you for some valuable information about the Bennett Memorial. Herald Square is one of the five squares included as part of my Five Squares and a Circle Tour (http://walkaboutny.com/tours/five-squares-and-a-circle/).

    There is connection with owls and Minerva; they are her attribute. Apollo has his lyre; Mercury has his caduceus; Zeus has his thunder bolt; Diana has her bow; Minerva has her owl. Minerva is the Goddess of Wisdom; thus the owl is associated with wisdom. Mr. Bennett’s obsession with owls could be tied in to his wish that his newspaper be associated with truth and wisdom.

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