By Christine Bush
My name is Oscar. I’m a friendly gargoyle with a certain expertise on observing historic buildings. My normal job is to protect my home by warding off evil, but my most important job is guarding the character of historic buildings. Mostly, I enjoy peering down from the eave with my impish expression observing and offering advice on the coming and goings of building projects. This is easy since I live in the eave of an 1850s farmhouse, and there is ALWAYS preservation projects going on that I observe. Through my friends at Adirondack Architectural Heritage, I will share what I have learned as a preservation steward.
We, gargoyles, grotesques, and chimers have endured for centuries as architectural necessities directing rainwater away from historic buildings, or as others speculate, warding off evil to protect the cathedrals, churches, and homes where they are perched.
Many of the protectors perched atop these buildings, much like myself are not gargoyles at all—they’re grotesques.
What makes a gargoyle different from a grotesque, you ask?
Actual gargoyles are functional waterspouts or gutters designed to divert erosive water away from walls and foundations of buildings.* While both types of sculptures are designed to scare, gargoyles also serve an architectural purpose. This function, technically speaking, distinguishes gargoyles from other stone beasts like grotesques and chimera.
The English word gargoyle comes to us from the French word gargouille, which in turn comes from the Latin gargula, meaning gullet or throat. The first gargoyles were simple, unadorned troughs placed on rooflines, corners, and the end of flying buttresses. Anywhere water would gather would be an ideal place for a gargoyle.
The world’s most famous gargoyles inspired me, and the ones that most influenced the popular wings-and-horns image of the creatures are found on Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. The gargoyles were part of an extensive restoration project in the mid-1800s. Conceived by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet, the gargoyles were intended to represent the period rather than recreate it.
You may be surprised to see a Gargoyle in the North Country, but we do exist. Why, just yesterday I spotted two-winged Griffiths on a porch. Alas, while I may not serve a practical use, such as shedding water away from my home anymore, warding off evil can’t hurt. When it comes to protecting your castle, knowledge truly is power. Proper planning and expert help are essential. Given that grotesques have been around since at least the twelfth century, serving as resilient guardians and preserving historic buildings.
I hope you will join me each week as I (along with some help from the AARCH staff) explore common problems, questions, and informative topics on architecture and historic preservation.
Send your questions, photos, and comments to my long-time friend and AARCH’s Preservation Services Director, Christine Bush. She knows how to reach me.
Next week The Story of Eaves.
Janetta Rebold Benton, Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings (1997)
Lester Burbank Bridaham, Gargoyles, Chimères, and the Grotesque in French Gothic Sculpture (1930)
Darlene Trew Crist, American Gargoyles: Spirits in Stone (2001)
Oscar was designed by artist Patrick Rankin.