Gargoyles — Architectural Monsters

Building decoration — wreathes, vines, angels, eagles, saints — are one thing, but nothing beats a good old fashioned gargoyle when it comes to jazzing up the exterior of a building. Usually associated with Gothic Cathedrals in Europe, many cities all over the world have gargoyles perched on buildings of more recent origins.

Traditionally, these monsters ward off evil. They can also be part of sculptural story telling and promote the legends that hold a culture together when literacy is uncommon.

The most famous gargoyles are winged creatures and the stories of them coming to life at night, flying over their cities and returning to their posts at dawn are wonderful.

I’ve had a postcard on my desk for several years. It’s from The Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection (The Surrealism Museum) in Berlin. It’s of Charles Méryon’s (1821 – 1868) Le Stryge (The Vampire). He worked on the renovations at Nôtre Dame and became fascinated with the medieval parts of his city. In Le Stryge ravens swarm in the sky as a gargoyle, with grotesque features, horns and wings, surveys his city in the foreground. It’s a wonderfully eerie work of art and a view of the city that only a gargoyle — or an artist working on the renovations — would experience.

Getting up close and personal with gargoyles is unusual. Aside from La Boheme at La Scala, the most memorable experience of my short trip to Milan was walking on the roof of the Duomo. It’s one of those things that I’d recommend to anyone going there. It’s touristy but it’s fun.

In New York, the most famous gargoyles are on the Chrysler Building (built 1928 -1930). The building is beautiful and even the gargoyles are examples of sleek Art Deco design. For a brief time, a year after its completion, the Chrysler Building was a monster of another kind — it was a giant among buildings, the tallest building in the world!

If you look up, you’ll find gargoyles in most cities. The more I look, the more I find. There’s a gargoyle party going on at 841 Broadway (the corner of 13th Street). It’s the building with a Cosi on the street level and Jivamukti and Bikram yoga upstairs.

Look up next time you’re out late. Maybe they’re flying home right before dawn?


  1. Beth M.

    I have to admit that I always found gargoyles kinda creepy yet fascinating at the same time. I can’t help but appreciate their decorative value to most buildings – especially since I really enjoy art deco design. I’ve heard that gargoyles were first used on buildings for a practical purpose as well – to allow rain runoff from the roof of churches so the roof would not become corroded! Wards off evil and keeps the roof from falling apart – practical!! I always liked the gargoyles on the Bryant Park Hotel (I think that’s the building) and the ones on the Farmers Loan and Trust building (not sure if it is still called that) now those are cool and kind of different.