Hogwarts In Manhattan: The 1,000 Gargoyles & Grotesques of City College

Last week, I took a trip up to 138th Street and Amsterdam to scout a location I’ve been meaning to visit for the longest time: the City College of New York.

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City College is one of those great places in the city where you step through the gates…

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…and suddenly feel like you’ve been transported far, far from Manhattan.

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I was walking around the north quadrangle, which consists of the original four campus buildings built in 1906…

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…and as I was heading into Harris Hall, I suddenly got the strangest feeling that I was being watched. I turned to my right…

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…and this guy was sticking his tongue out at me!

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And he wasn’t alone. Above me, a frowning professor-type was beckoning me in…

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…while on my left, I was being laughed at:

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There were even more faces buried in the arch…

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…all watching with mocking stares.

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Finally, two owl statues were positioned on either side of the door.

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In total, that’s 9 bits of statuary crammed around a single entrance. Amazed, I stepped back and looked up…

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…and realized I was being watched…

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…from every direction I turned.

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City College has over 1,000 (yes, 1,000!) grotesques and gargoyles covering its buildings, and each has such individual character that it’s hard to kick the feeling they’re on the verge of coming to life Hogwarts-style to mock you as you walk around the campus.

I spent about an hour or so trying to find as many of the bizarre and wonderful creatures as I could – here are some of my favorites.

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When it comes to the traditional demon-style grotesques and gargoyles, City College has some great examples. Several winged creatures are perched around the top of the tower at Compton Hall…

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…each a completely different style from the next.

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The most haunting, in my opinion, is the gargoyle on the west-side, which features a human head disturbingly attached to an eagle-like body, its mouth agape in a pained screech:

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Another favorite demon can be found perched on the corner of Harris Hall…

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…a horned figure holding a book with the initials FD written inside. I’d love to know who or what this is in reference to (thought for a minute the F might be for Faust, but as far as I know, Faust never had a surname beginning with D).

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Another demon can be found above the clock on Harris Hall…

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…a strange robed figure leaning in an ear to hear the students below:

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A shield-holding demon:

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But there are more than just demons at City College. In fact, much the statuary follows a particular theme. For example, look closely…

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…and you’ll see a laborer drilling into the side of the building:

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Another literally screws into the corner of the building:

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This guy is yanking out a stray nail with a hammer:

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Another is hammering on an anvil:

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Still another has at it with a sledge-hammer.

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Working the bellows (thanks, Martin & Violetsrose!):

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Whereas these literally seem to be taking part in the construction (or deconstruction?) of the building, still another group of grotesques are meant to represent the various disciplines and arts at the university.

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It starts simple, with a basic professorial-type reading a book:

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I love this glasses-clad professor leering down at students entering the building:

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A mathematician. If you notice some of the grotesques have a decidedly more human appearance than the typical caricatures, there’s a good chance they were based on members of the faculty.

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Then we hit the music department…

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…and you have nearly a full band…

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…playing above you:

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My favorite is the drummer:

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Then on to the sciences: love this guy examining a butterfly with a magnifying glass:

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A Dumbledore-like chemist mixes a potion:

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And of course, painting, represented by quite possibly the angriest-looking artist in New York:

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I’m guessing that this figure contemplating an hourglass represents philosophy:

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Another figure, clearly based on a real person (how great would it be to be forever immortalized as a grotesque?):

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Still more fascinating examples can be found surrounding the entrances to buildings. Above the door to Baskeville…

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…is a professor holding out what appears to be a test in geometry:

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A key-holder…

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…and beside him, another life-like representation:

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There’s something so wonderful about mixing such staid architecture with such whimsical figures. This guy may be in charge of holding a formal shield, for example, but he could care less about it:

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Perhaps he’s having a conversation with his neighbor?

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In fact, no one’s all that happy at this entrance:

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A few final ones. In the corner of Wingate Hall…

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….a guy flips his feet over his head while precariously holding on:

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Nearby, an impish-looking fellow holds onto a ring:

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And beside him, an older-looking grotesque holds the seal of the college:

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In fact, quite a lot of the figures are being acrobatic on Wingate, which makes sense since it used to be the original gym (thanks, EG!):

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As you head into the main entrance at Harris…

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…this guy is screaming at you:

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If the grotesques look to be in immaculate shape, it’s thanks to a restoration program that began in 1986. At the time, many of the terra cotta figures had fallen into total disrepair (some had even smashed after falling from their perches).

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Each figure was restored to its original condition, recast by hand, and returned to its place, at the time considered to be the largest terra cotta preservation effort in the country. You can see a bit of the process in this Facebook post – the picture below shows just how badly this particular figure had deteriorated (the white areas are the restored pieces that had broken off):

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The replacements should weather the elements much longer than their predecessors.

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Annoyed:

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Astounded:

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These pictures show a mere 50 or 60 of the 1,000 grotesques and gargoyles covering the north quad at City College – and I didn’t even get into the cathedral-like Shephard Hall.

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The campus is open to the public, and is absolutely worth a trip to admire these amazing works of art. If Hogwarts had a satellite campus in New York City, I’m pretty sure City College would be it.

-SCOUT

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24 comments

  1. Wingate was the original gym building (and there is still a gym in it), which might explain the acrobatic guys over there.

  2. The guy after the guy with the sledgehammer is manipulating a bellows, surely?

  3. Yes indeed, bellows – referring to working the fire used to heat a forge used to construct the metal work used in the construction of the building.

  4. The eagle with the human head is a harpy. They are not nice creatures.

  5. I wonder who the artists were who made these wonderful creatures?

  6. I taught at City College for several years, and loved to walk the quad and check out the gargoyles and grotesques. They are so unique and full of life. I would always greet the one with his tongue sticking out (sixth pic in the post) as I passed. I was sure he was doing it because I was running late.

    I’ve always wanted to know more about who specifically designed them, but there’s not a lot of info to be had. I did find one online resource about the original castings: http://www.strangeplants.com/LegbandtGG2.html

  7. Nick, you had me chuckling all the way thru. These guys are just too cool. I love them. Thank you for another look at a corner of the city that has gotten overlooked.

  8. Some British coins have “FD” on them for “fidei defensor” (that is, “defender of the faith”, in reference to the monarch depicted on the coin). That’s the only thing other than “fire department” that immediately springs to mind for “FD”. I don’t know of any important FD in the City College history…

    • My first thought was Fire Department also. Thank you for the information. Also after reading this in the New York Times I was intrigued. So I checked this out. I am hooked ! I can only imagine how nuts it would be to see this every day !! Love love it all… Donna

  9. Come and take one of our campus tours, you can visit The Great Hall which is truly spectacular! And City College offers an outstanding education at a reasonable cost. See our favorable rankings in Forbes, US News and World Report and the Princeton Review. -Director of Admissions, CCNY

  10. A very excellent post. Good on ya!

  11. Wow – thanks for raving about my alma mater – (1967 is when i was supposed to graduate :) I actually have a couple of B&W photos i took of 2 gargoyles back then and i do remember them being sooty. and, of course, i couldn’t see the ones way up. the trees have gotten so big, i almost didn’t recognize the entrance. i was mostly in Shepard Hall studying bio. really, thanks again. it’s nice to have a reason to be proud of City College once again. – alexa :]

    p.s. good luck with your film. . .

  12. Aside from the Campus Tours mentioned above, can anyone just walk through the gates and take photographs? I’m a huge fan of gargoyles and stone carvings on NYC buildings. The upper west side is notable for the frequency of them but other parts of the city including the lower east side feature them. I would be in heaven if I could get all these wonderful creatures featured in this article in my camera. Thank you very much for showing us this up til now unknown resource.

    • You can stroll through the campus, it’s open to the public at most times of day and a great walk. Entering the buildings usually requires a CCNY ID, unless you’re visiting Admissions.

  13. Re: Paul W
    It’s a open campus so you can walk anywhere anytime and take pictures. Class ’80.

  14. Great job in showcasing the architecture at The City College of New York!

  15. These are some of the best photos we’ve seen online of the beautiful,
    historic City College of New York campus and the gargoyles and
    grotesques that adorn our buildings. Thank you for photographing and
    sharing them with the world.

  16. Valerie Garcia Silva

    Wow! I’ve always noticed them on my way to class but I never really took in the appreciation of the art because I was always on a rush or to focused on something else. I will definitely take them into consideration and appreciate them more because they are indeed amazing works of art.

    P.S. I love that you mentioned Hogwarts. That’s one of the reason’s I love City College. Especially Shepard Hall. ^^

  17. I’ve never had a chance of examining the gargyoles during my explorations of the college. However, I have seen a few of the distorted ones sitting in Shepard Hall, and each one is about 3 feet tall!
    My favorite thus far is the Dumbledore-like chemist due to the fact that I am a Chemistry major, and also the current president of the Harry Potter Fan Club in City College.
    Thank you for taking your time to photograph and analyze the architecture in City College.

  18. I’m sorry if I missed it, but when were the original figures made? That very first one looks like the Disney version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame…please tell me it predated the movie! Thank you for putting this together….wonderful stuff!

  19. Thanks for properly distinguishing the difference between a grotesque and a gargoyle. What a wonderful phot set. I will be sure to walk this campus next time I’m in NYC. Thank you!! Well done.

  20. These are wonderful shots of the gargoyles and grotesques on the North Campus of CCNY. As a 1966 graduate I still remember them, although I never appreciated them in this detail before. Thank you for your terrific work.

  21. SUSAN (ABEL) sPARAGO

    I revisited the campus on May 31, 2013 for my classes 50th anniversary (class of 63 ) and was amazed at all the changes outside of the North Quadrangle. The gargoyles were part of our yearbook and they haven’t changed a bit. I only wish all the buildings added to the rest of the campus were done in the same style or at least the same grey stone and white terra cotta. I have been to Stanford University for my son’s graduation and all the buildings, old and new have the same red tile roofs giving them a somewhat unified look.

    • It’s a great shame what happened to the rest of the campus. The monstrosity of a building that replaced Lewisohn Stadium in the 1970s – I think it’s called the North Academic Complex – is a real eyesore and completely out of sync with the wonderful neo-Gathic buildings nearby. But, at least, like Paris, we’ll always have the North Quadrangle.

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