Gargoyles, Grotesques and Chimaera

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Gargoyles, grotesques and chimaera have been looking down on us for centuries, but most of us have never seen them, let alone, look back at them. They tend to reside at very high levels and unless you're looking for them, you're probably not going to see them. In architectural terms, "grotesque" is a noun, not an adjective. Popular misconception is that all building adornments are gargoyles, but that is really not true, as the grotesque (above) illustrates. The term "gargoyle" is often misused to refer this ornament that should actually be classified as a grotesque or chimera.

All gargoyles are grotesques or chimaera, but few grotesques and chimaera are gargoyles.

Well then, just what are these devices?

A gargoyle is a grotesque with the added feature of a trough or pipe for carrying water. In it's simplest form, a gargoyle is a rain gutter. These decorative waterspouts serve a purpose, they preserve stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from the walls of buildings to prevent deterioration of mortar. The word itself derives from the French "gargouille", or throat, which is only natural because the water outlet is usually a gargoyle's mouth. (Gargouille is also the source of the verb "gargle.") Gargoyles are usually situated near the roof of a building and usually extend some distance from the building itself. The idea is to guide rainwater away from the building, usually from the mouth of some sort of fantastic creature. Today, most gargoyle's water outlets are capped to prevent rain water from cascading upon the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians below.


This gargoyle resides on Johnston Hall
on the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee campus.

Grotesque refers to ornamentation that takes several different forms, but often appears as an animal, humanoid face or an object of some sort, such as the face at the top of this essay.

Some famous grotesques above the 31st floor of The Chrysler Building in New York City are styled after the radiator cap of the 1929 Plymouth. Eagle gargoyles adorn the corners of the 61st floor. It's not just Plymouth hood ornaments, the 61st floor eagles are replicas of the 1929 Chrysler hood ornament.

A chimera is a grotesque that is of a fantastic creature, often comprised of mixed features of other creatures. Examples of chimaera would be griffins, mermaids or harpies.


This griffin, a great example of a chimera,
stands guard outside the Merchants' National Bank in Grinnell, Iowa.

Gargoyles, chimaera and grotesques were once considered to be carved in stone or cast in Terra Cotta. The Chrysler Building grotesques and the crown brightwork above the 61st floor are made of corrosion-resistant Nirosta, the trade name for an alloy of chrome-nickel steel ("Enduro KA-2") that was developed by Krupp. Grotesques are not limited to faces, they may be objects and may be an entire single body. They often are only a head or a face.


This is a sampling of the grotesques on the
Wisconsin Consistory Building
in Milwaukee.

Gargoyles have been with us through the millennia, examples have been found in ancient Greece and Roman Empire structures. The use of gargoyles proliferated on Romanesque and Gothic periods, and by extension to Romanesque and Gothic Revival structures.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in many other cities, grotesques appear on churches, university structures, commercial buildings and some ornate homes. Gargoyles in Milwaukee seem to be mostly on commercial buildings while grotesques are everywhere, you just have to be looking for them.

The Mackie Building, in downtown Milwaukee, is a marvellous example of Beaux Arts, it was designed by the famous Edward Townsend Mix, commissioned by Alexander Mitchell. It was the center of commodities trading in the state, in fact, at one time, it was the grain trading capital of the United States with trades transacted in the Grain Exchange on the second floor.

The Mackie Building offers a smorgasbord of grotesques and gargoyles. The main entrance is watched over by Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, specifically grain. The faces of lions adorn the cupola and four gargoyles, in the shape of fish, used to drain water from the clock tower. (The clock appears to be correct twice a day.) Check out the other grotesques that are themed around commerce and trade, too. See if you can find a ship and a locomotive, a banner proclaiming the building as the home of a major tenant, a tableau of the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin, a ewe, a bull or any one of many whimsical faces.


The entire Mackie Building is covered with grotesques
and with gargoyles on the clock tower.
This portion of the main entrance surround is just a
sample of the cornucopia of grotesques on this structure.

Keep looking up - you don't know what might be looking back at you!


Editor's Note: All images in this essay by J.R. Manning and are used elsewhere on LandmarkHunter.


Farmers and Merchants Union Bank (Columbia County, Wisconsin)
Federal Building (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
Outstanding Richardson Romanesque Revival Building
Janesville High School (Rock County, Wisconsin)
The former high school and junior high school building, repurposed as apartments.
Mackie Building (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
Imposing example of large commercial structure of the 1870's, typical of Milv/aukee's rapid growth and commercial development following the Civil War
Merchants' National Bank (Poweshiek County, Iowa)
One of Louis Sullivan's "Jewel Box" banks and one of the best preserved.
Milwaukee-Downer "Quad" (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
Four A.C. Eschweiler designed buidlings that were the basis of Milwaukee Downer College.
Mitchell Building (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
The Cudahy and The Cudahy Tower (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin)
Beaux Arts Apartment House and Condos