They have a face only a mother could love. They aren’t much on conversation. And if they could talk, you have to figure their personality would be on the sour side.
I’m referring, of course, to gargoyles. They guard dozens — perhaps hundreds — of Chicago high-rise buildings and a fair number of residences. I daresay the Windy City is lousy with gargoyles. In just a couple of hours this weekend I found angry-looking gargoyles, hunching-ready-to-pounce gargoyles and a few that I could swear were laughing at us mere earthbound mortals.
You’ll often see gargoyles outside churches. Sometimes their mission is to ward off evil spirits. But others believe the creatures are outside churches to scare parishioners into going inside.
Alas, like shag carpeting and lava lamps, gargoyles appear to have fallen out of style. You don’t often see sleek, modern skyscrapers with gargoyles attached. Bertrand Goldberg evidently didn’t feel the gargoyle would fit in too well with mid-century modern, either.
I asked Chicago native Walter Arnold, the city’s most-noted gargoyle authority, if there was any reason we don’t see gargoyles appearing in new construction.
“Ornamentation has gone out of style, particularly architectural ornamentation,” said Arnold. “It’s very rare to encounter it. They don’t really fit with the concepts going on with architecture and building design.”
Arnold observed that current architectural styles don’t necessarily work with the exuberant and fanciful. “Neoclassical is much more structured and limited. At the turn of the century there was much more sense of decorating a building with ornamentation and enhancing the design. In the forties, fifties and sixties, you saw a much more minimalist approach. And, you saw more of a mindset of not spending extra money on gargoyles.”
Chicago also became a gargoyle mecca in the late 1800’s because there were so many stoneyards.
“From 1890 through about 1915, there were a hundred stoneyards in Chicagoland and each one had stone carvers,” said Arnold, who knew from the age of 12 that he wanted to carve, and that he wanted to specialize in gargoyles. You can see his work at stonecarver.com.
Arnold is a master stone carver who studied his craft in Italy. His gargoyles can be found all over Chicago and across the country on the few buildings that call for them. You could definitely call his gargoyles whimsical. His gargoyle sitting outside the Hyde Park restaurant Medici (1327 East 57th Street) is eating a hamburger.
Although he doesn’t get a lot of exterior work, there have been a few commissions.
“I did a couple for a commercial building in Saratoga, New York — they were bat gargoyles. Another one I did was for a lobbyist building in Washington, DC.”
The shape of those gargoyles, Arnold said, was very specific to the nation’s capital. “They take the shape of a donkey and an elephant.”