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The Real-Life Mystery Behind The Gargoyle Hunters

John Freeman Gill’s novel The Gargoyle Hunters reads like a poignant love letter to New York City. Set in the Big Apple in the 1970s, this moving account of a boy’s coming-of-age is also a gripping historical tale based on the true story of an architectural heist that baffled the city. The author was kind enough to write an exclusive piece explaining what it was about this event that inspired him, and how he came to tell young Griffin Watts’s story.

New York in the 1970s, the city of my youth, was a vividly crumbling, lawless place in which nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down got stolen. My aim in writing The Gargoyle Hunters was two-fold: I wanted to tell not only a small, intimate story of a fragmenting family but also a big story of a fragmenting city during the 1970s financial crisis.

At its climax, the novel solves the mystery behind a brazen, seemingly impossible architectural heist that stunned the city and made the front page of The New York Times in 1974: the theft of an entire Manhattan landmark building, cornice to curb. Astonishingly, this heist really happened. In the mid-1960s, the city announced that a vast swath of Lower Manhattan was going to be razed for a redevelopment project that would include the construction of the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, an irreplaceable architectural treasure lay in the path of this planned demolition: the oldest cast-iron building in the country, constructed in 1849 and adorned with starbursts, Medusa heads, and half-round fluted Doric columns. To protect this one-of-a-kind treasure, the city’s young landmarks commission arranged to have it dismantled for future reconstruction on a new site. In February 1971, the 150-ton landmark facade was disassembled piece by iron piece with what one historian called “the care and precision that would be given to handling a piece of jewelry.” The fragments of this gargantuan architectural jigsaw puzzle were then stored behind a padlocked fence in a lot in the downtown neighborhood of Tribeca, where they languished until June 25, 1974.

On that day, Beverly Moss Spatt, head of the landmarks commission, sprinted into the press room at City Hall and cried, “Someone has stolen one of my buildings!” The thieves, surprised in broad daylight by a contractor, had leapt into a truck and raced away. Police soon discovered that two-thirds of the landmark’s iron panels had been stolen and sold to a scrap yard in the Bronx; most had been destroyed. The landmarks commission reclaimed the surviving 59 cast-iron panels and hid them in a Hell’s Kitchen building under lock and key. But amazingly, this whole Keystone Kops story then repeated itself, as every last surviving iron panel was stolen from this new “secure” location. And again, the panicked landmarks chair ran into the City Hall press room, this time shouting, “My building has been stolen again!” Not one of the precious building fragments was ever recovered.

To this day, no one knows who stole that venerable cast-iron landmark building or what became of it. I decided to solve the mystery in The Gargoyle Hunters by placing exuberant thirteen-year-old Griffin Watts and his obsessive preservationist father at the center of the action. I wanted to know the end of that story, so I sat down and wrote it.

It was enormous fun for me to explore how the complex relationship between Griffin and his father is increasingly strained during and after the theft of the cast-iron landmark, but writing about the heist also led to a truly surprising postscript. Once The Gargoyle Hunters was published, an affable man came up to me after a reading and asked me to inscribe a copy of the novel to a friend of his—none other than Beverly Moss Spatt, the former landmarks chair—I did so, wondering inwardly if she would be unhappy to read a dramatization of a scandalous heist that occurred on her watch. I needn’t have worried. A few weeks later, Ms. Spatt, then in her nineties, sent me a gracious email: “George gave me your book and thanks so much for signing it to me. I immediately read the chapter in which you alluded to the building that was stolen and I shall read the entire book. I found the chapter delightful and [it] brought back memories. I never dreamed that what I did and said would last forever.”

— John Freeman Gill