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Bellringers’ Statue Gets a Summer Make-Over

This summer the James Gordon Bennett Monument (also known as the Bellringers) in Herald Square is being conserved through the Adopt-A-Monument Program, a joint venture of the Municipal Art Society, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and the New York City Art Commission. A generous grant from the George Trescher Fund to the Municipal Art Society made the project possible and the 34th Street Partnership is providing additional funds.

The conservation work will be implemented by the Integrated Conservation Company and Wilson Conservation, and will include stone cleaning and repointing, bronze conservation, and renovation of the mechanical system and cabling that enables the statuary to swivel in synchronicity with the striking of the clock bell. Additional repairs to the roof, electrical system and clock faces will also be carried out.

Rich History

The monument consists of a 40-foot-tall Italianate granite structure with flanking Corinthian pilasters. A large bronze sculptural group — including a heroically-sized Minerva, Greek goddess of wisdom, and two blacksmiths who swivel and appear to strike a large bronze bell — occupy a central niche. The combined imagery of Minerva, poised with a shield and serpents around her breastplate and arms, commanding the muscular blacksmiths as they strike an enormous bell each hour, was intended to personify the “stalwart dignity of work.” Other distinctive features of the monument are two large clocks on the south and north façade of the monument, and two bronze owls at the parapet facing west and east.

The monument honors New York Herald founder James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872) and his son James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841-1918) and adapts bronze statuary formerly located on the Herald Building that once stood directly to the north of the square on West 35th Street.

In 1892, Bennett senior commissioned a new headquarters for his newspaper and selected the French sculptor Jean Antonin Carles — whose bronze Retour de la Chasse (Return of the Hunt) was installed in Paris’ Jardins de Tuileries in 1888 — to create Minerva and the Bellringers. By September 30, 1894, all of the statuary was installed and the E. Howard Clock clock mechanism functional, including the bell cast at the Meneeley Bell Company of Troy, New York.

The sculptures and their hourly theatrics have been embraced by the public who have nicknamed the bell ringers, “Stuff and Guff,” or “Gog and Magog.” Light-bulbs concealed within the bronze owls’ eyes cause them to “blink” in synchronicity with the tolling of the bell, which sound for the last time at 11p.m. daily.

A New Beginning

Sadly, the sculptures, and ultimately the building, were to have a relatively short life span at this location, and in 1921 the sculptures were removed from the building and acquired by New York University, where they languished in storage. In 1939, the university approved the “permanent loan” of the statuary to the New York City Parks Department, which unveiled the monument with a new granite pedestal by Aymar Embury II in its new location on November 19, 1940.

In the intervening years other than periodic cleanings and graffiti removal, the monument received little maintenance, until 1984 when two self-taught clock repairers, Marvin Schneider, subsequently named the city’s clock-master, and Eric Reiner, assumed responsibility for the general maintenance of the clock, including periodic lubrication of the mechanism, resetting the clock during seasonal time changes, and repairs and replacement of parts as necessary.

In 1989, under the auspices of the Adopt-A-Monument Program, and with support from the International Herald-Tribune and Mastercard, the bronze sculptures were conserved by John Scott and the stone cleaned by Remco Maintenance Corporation.

Subsequently, Herald Square was redesigned by the 34th Street Partnership. This 1999 renovation included new granite finishes, seasonal perimeter plantings, as well as a public concession and comfort station, transforming the park into a destination for tourists and local workers.

The conservation is expected to be completed by the end of August and will ensure that the James Gordon Bennett monument with its rich history continues to delight onlookers at this always busy mid-town crossroads.

The writers are Director of the Adopt-A-Monument/Mural program and Director of Art & Antiquity at the NYC Dept of Parks & Recreation.