Manhattan Almost Had an Owl Mausoleum on Skyline


History is fascinating. Learning and researching people, structures, and events helps to bring a better understanding of the time that was. However, not all study of history is of things that came to be. Sometimes the more fascinating stories surround things that never were. One example of this was detailed in a very interesting article recently, involving a wealthy playboy, a philandering architect, and a 200-foot tall, hollowed owl mausoleum. Let us begin.

The story begins almost 110 years ago when, in an attempt to secure immortality, heir to the New York Herald publishing fortune James Bennett Gordon, Jr. commissioned the most sought after architect of the day, Stanford White, to design and build the home for his hereafter.

Mausolea have been constructed throughout time to memorialize the life of a famous individual or prominent family. Design of these structures typically follows a protocol of respectful understatement. Many mausolea incorporate elements of a particular time, be it early Egyptian, Etruscan Italy, or more modern design styles representative of later Anglo-Saxon elements. For this story, however, it is important to know that James Bennett Gordon, Jr. wanted a mausoleum unlike any other constructed before or since.

But who was James Bennett Gordon, Jr., and why would the construction of his mausoleum shock (but not surprise) the New York elite, whose circles he traveled within? To put it bluntly, James Bennett Gordon, Jr. was the original New York bad boy, known simply as “The Commodore”. One oft told story involved this eccentric playboy terrorizing the New York City streets in the middle of the night, commanding his horse drawn carriage at high speeds, all while displaying himself sans clothing. He was the early 20th Century example of privilege run amok.

He was not simply one to exist in New York City, either. His decisions and actions still are stamped on the city geography to this day. Just years before the world rang in the 1900s, Bennett decided his father’s paper, The New York Herald, no longer needed to print side-by-side to the other papers of the day in an area of the city known as “Newspaper Row”. He moved the paper further north and had constructed a new and ornate building bedecked with owls, a bird that apparently held a special place in the heart of Bennett. Though that building no longer exists, the area of Manhattan still does. Today, it is known as Herald Square. (And those owls, with their internally lit green eyes, are there as well.)

With owls in mind, Bennett commissioned White, whose architectural firm was behind the design and construction of many prominent New York City landmarks, such as the New York Public Library building, Columbia University, the second (and subsequent) Madison Square Gardens, and other iconic buildings, to create a mausoleum in the form of a 125-foot hollow owl, within which his sarcophagus would be suspended high above the ground, held by giant steel chains. The owl, perched atop a 75-foot pedestal, and built at one of the highest points on Manhattan would peer over the city at 465-feet above sea level. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty rises 305-feet above sea level. 

So how is it that an obscenely wealthy playboy with seemingly endless amounts of cash on hand was unable to see his dream of constructing a monument that soared high above the entirety of Manhattan and the other boroughs? It all rested on Stanford White and his human failings.

It was no secret that Stanford White was a notorious womanizer, taking lovers across the city with little to no regard for whether or not they were single or married. Some historians also note that not all of White’s conquests were necessarily consensual. And so it was on the night of June 25, 1906 that White’s lascivious behavior finally caught up with him. At a rooftop performance of the musical “Mam’zelle Champagne”, during the finale, the husband of one of White’s caddish dalliances murdered him, exclaiming either “You ruined my life” or “You ruined my wife”. With the death of White also came the death of Bennett’s gargantuan owl mausoleum.

When stories like this come to light, it highlights the fascination of a history that was never able to unfold. The many millions of residents and untold millions of annual visitors to the “city that never sleeps” would live in a different landscape if Bennett’s owl had ever been constructed. His name would be forever known as people would, no doubt, flock to the giant owl in Washington Heights and ascend the spiral staircase to look out the glass-eyed windows that would have peered south to the tip of Manhattan and beyond. But personality and circumstance conspired to make it so that would never be so.

More interestingly, this story highlights the purpose of a mausoleum. A mausoleum ensures the memory of a person or their family lives on in perpetuity. There are no constraints on the style, design, and other implements other than what one can imagine. For Bennett, that vision was of an owl soaring high above the city he called home. What would your mausoleum look like?

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