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gargoyles and grotesques

The great gothic guardians of Emma Willard School.

50… a gossiping jester 
51… a balding man, playing cello 
52… a woman (seated?) with detailed hair (in ringlets or braids?), stretching a thin piece of cloth over her foot 

With weathered clothes and worn features, these are just a few of the figures that keep careful watch over Slocum Hall. In fact, there are 82 of them hidden in plain sight around corners and doorways on that building alone, each one diligently carrying out its mission for over 100 years. Poets and astronomers, musicians and mathematicians—these are just some of the century-sustaining sentinels that look over the lives of those on campus. Yet even from their vantage point they seem unaware of the monsters that lurk above, silhouetted against a greying sky: wingèd beasts trapped in snarling stone—

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The year is 1910, and Emma Willard School is making its forever home on Mount Ida. There are three buildings in the beginning stage on the new campus: Slocum Hall, where the academic studies will be housed; Sage Hall, the student dormitory; and the Gymnasium, which will, in the future, be converted into a chapel and, most recently, to the Alice Dodge Wallace ’38 Center for the Performing Arts. Working alongside the architects of M.F. Cummings & Son, Englishman Abraham K. Mosley has been charged with designing all of the decorative elements that make the buildings feel distinctly Collegiate Gothic—a sharp, elegant architectural style that is part of the greater Gothic Revival movement.

There’s much exciting work he’s doing, but of particular interest to us are his plans for the gargoyles and grotesques that will decorate every exterior face of every building. They number some 300 sketches, and are actively being translated into stone by a team of English and French artists gathered on the campus lawn, amidst the debris of construction. On this, a breezy spring day, they’re using their craft to painstakingly turn blocks of Bedford Indiana limestone into many little—and some quite big—works of art that will soon be lifted up into the air and securely fixed into the walls. But why go to all this effort for pieces of the campus that are bound to be overlooked because of how high they sit out of the average line of sight?

chapel sculptor

A sculptor works on some of the stone guardians of campus during the early days of construction in the 1910s.

This was one of the questions I had when I set out to catalog the gargoyles on campus, a task that quickly became much more complicated than I had bargained for. I had wanted to do a Practicum in the archives since 9th grade, but with the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and then college applications, it wasn’t until the spring semester of my senior year that my work began. I approached the archivist at the time, Nancy Iannucci, about possible archives projects. She immediately suggested I could take inventory of all of the gargoyles on campus, as a full catalog hadn’t yet been compiled. With this exciting prospect ahead, I immediately grabbed my sketchbook and a pencil and headed towards Slocum, into the great cataloging unknown! ...Before promptly realizing that I had no clue where to start. For the first time, I noticed just how many little figures there were, and I found myself with an endless number of questions, chief among them being, “Why?” followed by, “How?”

The ‘how?’ I’ve already revealed, but the answer to ‘why?’ can, in part, be answered by the architecture. The Gothic Revival style, by definition, draws direct inspiration from medieval Gothic buildings, especially religious institutions. Decorative features of the architecture like gargoyles and grotesques—an important distinction that will become relevant soon—are popular on revival buildings because they were popular on the original medieval churches and cathedrals that the newer buildings are based on. There’s no clear, singular reason for their popularity, but one theory is that gargoyles were used as charms to ward off evil, and could most effectively watch over the populace from these structures, which were tall and often centrally located in any given town or city. Another perhaps more credible idea is that having depictions of the clergy or biblical figures and stories on the exterior of churches made these subjects more accessible to illiterate people (the vast majority of the public at the time), and thus was another way to introduce Christianity to the masses. Regardless, a semblance of both of these ideas—explanatory symbolism and protection over a place—seem to have found their way into the modern use of sculpture in Gothic Revival architecture. For example, Slocum’s sculptures are academically and theatrically themed, while Sage’s are residential, and the old Gymnasium’s are athletic.

grotesques at emma

Examples of some of the grotesques adorning Slocum Hall, largely academically themed.

Up until now I’ve deliberately been vague in my classification of “sculpture,” and I feel there’s no better way to break that illusion than with a hard truth: there are actually only 16 gargoyles on campus—the rest are grotesques.

Shocking, I know, but this was pointed out to me by my friend Charlotte Hobbs ’22 as we wandered outside the front of Slocum, taking stock of the various stone scholars residing there. Grotesques, I learned, are purely ornamental stone decorations, typically of people or animals and especially those in relation to myths and monsters. Gargoyles also follow this theme—although they tend to land more squarely in the monster category—but in order to be a gargoyle, the figure has to be able to displace water like a gutter, usually via a spout in its mouth. Etymologically this makes sense; “gargoyle,” like the word “gargle,” shares in common the Latin gula meaning “throat,” while “grotesque” uses the Italian word grotta, meaning “of a cave.” Sometimes (and indeed at Emma, often) these figures are high up and it’s hard to tell which is which, but I’ve found that looking for water damage below and around the mouth is usually a good indication of a gargoyle, because the water has had time to erode the stone.

Incidentally, this common confusion brings me to one of the main challenges I faced in trying to catalog “the gargoyles”: what counted? How was I to decide what to catalog? Worst of all, how was I going to keep it neat and orderly for the next person, knowing that it was the spring semester of my senior year?! Eventually, I landed on numerical notation for grotesques and alphabetical notation for anything else, with a few rules in place to limit both categories:

1. “If it has a face, I’m counting it”—an actual note I wrote on my map of Slocum
2. Grotesques must be human/have human features; no little creatures (lizards, turtles, etc.)—They are very cute but there are so many
3. No full miniatures of people [ex: Lady Justice on the Slocum columns]—really, the Slocum columns caused a lot of problems, but are so gorgeous and were well worth the trouble
4. The shallow sculptures above the doors of Slocum are (vaguely) reliefs, and for that reason won’t be counted— a harsh, but necessary, distinction to be made

This was a fairly good system; the only issues I found were on the chapel, where there are corbel-esque decorations in the shape of a face peeking out of foliage, which technically fit all of the rules I set even though they don’t look like the typical grotesques on campus. Additionally, there are two gargoyles on the chapel that are visually distinct from the ones on the clock tower. You can find them on the high porch around the back of the building: chimera-like creatures with their mouths hanging wide open in a growl, a hundred years later still allowing water to escape off of the roof.

Speaking of the chapel gargoyles, I have a soft spot in my heart for the terrific visages that look over campus from that building. I mean ‘terrific’ in the original sense here: their faces are terrified, or else downright maniacal. I’ll let my notes do them justice:

★B. Laughing figure with a mischievous smile lying down on an extension of the tower, hands clasped beneath it
★ C. Wailing figure with hands up to its face in an expression of shock/despair, knees almost up to its chest
★ D. Laughing figure similar to B
★ E. Wailing figure similar to C, but its arms are bent backward at the shoulders at a weird angle as it seemingly tries to push off from its base

There’s a reason for the intensity of emotion displayed here, and it’s my other favorite thing about them: there’s a story being told, and I think they’re being chased. Below them on the molding, deeply carved to appear as though they’re barely being contained in their stone forms, are their six tormentors, positioned like wicked guardians around three sides of the tower. They are by far and away the most mythical of the grotesques on campus, and the most ferocious looking. Once again, I think I’ll let my notes illustrate the point:

24. Lion-monkey hybrid creature sitting facing the building, its neck twisting around in a snarl so that it seems to be craning its head behind it to look at inner campus
25. Twisting serpentine figure, hard to tell where its head is
26. Beast very similar to #24, but the body is also curved around slightly
27. Profile of a very large beast head facing to the right with pointed ears, roaring
28. Beast vaguely similar to #24 and in a similar position, but much skinnier
29. Upside down beast of the same description, curling inwards on itself like a ‘C’

And even below them, the heads of two men looking around the window, wearing hard-to-read expressions but eyeing each other as if to say, “Pay it no mind.”

foot gargoyle

The affectionately known "foot gargoyle" has made appearances on the Emma Willard School TikTok.

But the story pauses there. I wasn’t able to complete everything before graduation: the stonework on Sage has yet to be cataloged, and all of the grotesques and gargoyles on campus still need to be photographed individually. My descriptions, too, could use more accuracy, and there are more historical or otherwise significant figures on Slocum and the chapel to be identified (besides Theodore Roosevelt and Shakespeare). For example, Mosley’s grandmother—whom he described to have the same spirit and resilience as Emma Hart Willard—is found outside the door to admissions in the port-cochere of Sage; we know this thanks to the research of former student Alex Spear ’20, author of The Architectural Heritage of Emma Willard School.

I write this article with two hopes for you, reader. Firstly, that what I’ve written will inspire you to go take a walk with friends around the outside of campus, on a day in spring that I hope is as breezy and beautiful as it was in 1910. I promise you won’t regret setting aside an hour or two to spend some time looking at the story unfolding above you. I think you might find yourself reflected in some of them.

Secondly, and selfishly, that you might take up the task of continuing to uncover the history of ‘ye grey walls’ and finish the cataloging that’s been started. I firmly believe there’s much more of this tale of scholars and serpents to be told, and therein a million mysteries to unfold.

This article was written by Roux Colacino ’22 for the Fall/Winter 2023 Edition of Signature Magazine.



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