05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Something Strange 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.

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...

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

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.

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.

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

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

A closer look at the western owl:

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):

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...

...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!):

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

...Which features this strange emblem:

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.


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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