Devils in the details Gargoyles: Many people think of them as hunched-over creepy beasts with wings, but they are often functional architectural pieces.

October 26, 1997|By Mary T. McCarthy | Mary T. McCarthy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a jungle out there.

Downtown Baltimore buildings are home to a variety of architectural creatures that peer down at passers-by, seemingly protecting the structures where they reside.

Nowadays pedestrians seem to pay little attention to the devilish creatures scattered throughout the city, but with Halloween approaching, some can't help but look up at the gargoyles.

Gargoyles are often-misunderstood creatures. Many people think of gargoyles as a hunched-over creepy beasts with wings.

While they are often carved in this grotesque fashion, gargoyles are often functional architectural details that serve as waterspouts, projecting from the roof gutter of a building and sometimes spewing water through their mouths.

As architecture's famous saying goes, form follows function. The function of gargoyles is essentially to throw water away from a building.

A gargoyle can be a lion, bird or other animal. It's the creepy guys, though, that people think of when they think gargoyle. Horns, fangs and claws come to mind. Intricately carved gargoyles originated in European medieval architecture, particularly in France and England, in the 13th and 14th centuries.

As a result of medieval society's fascination with the grotesque and macabre, gargoyles were used as protection from evil spirits. Traditionally, churches were the homes of gargoyles, though they are often found perched above residential structures in Europe. A late 19th-century revival of this medieval style is the reason for the gargoyles we see in Baltimore.

"Just about all the gargoyles in Baltimore were built at the same time, within a 10-year period of the 1880s. This style was one of the great architectural crazes of the 19th century," says Charlie Duff, president of the Baltimore Architectural Foundation.

"There was a huge revival of medieval architecture, particularly in churches, and people started using these Gothic styles in building their homes," he said, noting that at this revival, many gargoyles were used strictly as decoration. The gargoyles mimicked the original style, but were given no functional purpose.

Why the popularity of gargoyles?

"Because they're so cool," Duff says.

But where can you find these devilishly hidden creatures? You have to look carefully, and in the right places.

Look up the next time you walk around Mount Vernon Place, Washington Street, St. Paul Street or in Bolton Hill. You will certainly notice a zoo-like variety of animal wonders.

Gargoyles seem to be in vogue lately, most recently as three friendly figures in Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame." The 1988 book "Nightmares in the Sky" is a photographic essay on gargoyles and grotesque architectural sculpture by f-stop Fitzgerald with text by horror writer Stephen King.

As for the psychology of gargoyles?

King wrote: "A drain is a perfectly utilitarian device for venting wastewater; gargoyles, with their dreamlike hideous array of faces, may well serve much the same purpose for our minds; as a way of venting the mental waste material made up of our hidden fears, inadequacies and even our unrealized and mostly unacknowledged aggressions."

James Wollon is the chairman of the Historic Architecture Roundtable (nicknamed the "Dead Architects Society") of Baltimore. He explains the reasoning for architects' use of the Gothic creatures in 19th-century medieval revival architecture.

"More than anything, it's pure whimsy. Architects in the 1880s and 1890s loved to mimic this medieval style. There was no end of craftsmanship available, labor was cheap, and the architects ornamented their buildings extensively and authentically," Wollon says. Wollon adds that high-quality materials such as stone and marble were used, which is why the buildings remain intact today.

If anyone knows what living with a gargoyle is like, it's Jack Jacobs. His house on Bolton Street in Bolton Hill is guarded by a pair of classic gargoyles, ones which Duff calls "the best in Baltimore." They are winged and creepy, and their grotesque faces stare down from their crouched position atop the large first-story bay window.

Baltimore architectural historians agree that if there was a "best gargoyle" contest, these would win hands -- or claws -- down.

Jacobs, a music minister at a Baltimore area church, lives at the home, but says he hasn't had a chance to do much historical research on the house.

He says he found an inscription inside which is dated Oct. 10, 1882, and assumes that the house was built at about that time.

About the gargoyles, Jacobs says: "At first, I was a bit apprehensive about them. They are kind of creepy, and I didn't want to scare people away from the house. But I do like it for the architectural history aspect, and supposedly they are a source of protection. The house is very peaceful."

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