Wednesday, March 3, 2010


RATS! 2010

It’s a cliché here at “What I Saw” that you can learn a lot by looking up. But the other day even I was surprised by what I saw.

It was early on a Saturday morning in New York City. It was bitter cold and there was a light snow in the air. I had about an hour for a walk, so I’d wandered over to Grand Central Terminal with the idea of shooting photographs of exterior architectural details of the Terminal.

The light didn’t turn out to be very good for that. But while I was walking around the outside of the building—in all the years I’ve been photographing Grand Central, it seems I’d never approached it from the Lexington Avenue side—I took notice of the adjacent Graybar Building. I don’t know much about the Graybar Building other than that it was designed by the Sloan & Robertson firm, that it was built in the deco style in 1930 and that it was once home to the CBS broadcast network’s studios. (Graybar is big in electrical supply management. TV broadcasters need a lot of electricity. Maybe that explains the CBS connection?)

New York has a number of remarkable deco style buildings. But what made me notice the Graybar building was the rats. Yes, rats. No real ones, of course. Just the ones you see in the picture above.

To be sure, New York has its share of rats. But I’d never seen a building with rats incorporated into the design of the structure. It seems especially ironic that such a large and clearly corporate building like Graybar would have rats in its design.

Rats are, of course, a common metaphor in labor negotiations these days. But I don’t know if that was the case in the 1920s. And in any event, rats are usually seen as being dirty, predatory animals that carry disease. In short, not exactly the impression you want to leave on the side of your fancy office building. But here they are, done up in metal, scurrying up the side entrance to the decidedly blue chip Graybar Building.

I found this explanation of the Graybar rats, by way of the late Meyer Berger, who had a “Forgotten NY” column in the New York Times in the 1950s. Berger wrote:

"The architect...tries to symbolize the fact that the Graybar Building was the focal point in the country's greatest maritime and railroad center. The rat-and-hawser motif is there to symbolize a ship and, in turn, a port. The rat on the hawser, baffled by the rat-guard, is trying to get into the ship. The circle of rat heads on the side of the hawser typify [sic] the rats IN the ship.

1 comment:

  1. That IS interesting! I never noticed those on that building. Some day, centuries from now, some archeologist will be digging up the remains of the Graybar, and...