Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Murray Christmas!

“ ‘I think the Christmas card was one of my best inventions,’ [the Devil] said. ‘Yes, I think the Christmas card has done as much to put Christmas to the bad as any other single thing. And I began it so cleverly; just a few pretty Victorian printed greetings, and then – well, you know what it is today.”

Robertson Davies
When Satan Goes Home for Christmas

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lute Lady

My mother died 19 years ago tonight, far from her Chicago home. At about the time she died, my sisters and I discovered a nifty way to memorialize her in her old North Side neighbourhood.

The Mid-North Association, a Lincoln Park area civic group, began selling personalized bricks with which to repave a park known variously as Mid-North Park and the Belden Triangle, and to rehabilitate it somewhat. For U.S.$60, we had two lines engraved that said, simply, "Maggie Murray" and "I Miss Chicago."

On my next trips to Chicago after ordering our brick, I would visit Mid-North Park to see whether it had been installed yet. I finally found it - quite near bricks bought by local businesses she used to patronize, as well as Bill Kurtis, the TV newsman she so admired.

Whenever I'm in Chicago, I still make a little pilgrimage to that park.

But in the intervening years, the park has changed. At the time of the brick-laying, it featured a beautiful sculpture of a veiled woman playing the lute, with two children on either side of her. A few years ago, I noticed that the sculpture was gone - replaced by a (forgive me) rather uninspiring fountain. It was installed as part of a beautification project to renovate or construct 18 fountains in parks, triangles formed by some of the city's weird intersections of three streets, plazas and other open spaces.

I think Mid-North Park/Belden Triangle got one of the more pedestrian fountains. But I always wondered what happened to the sculpture.

I decided to seize the moment, probably prompted by the anniversary of my mother's death, and contacted Chicago Park District (CPD) historian Julia Bachrach. She directed the years of research that resulted in the Chicago Park District Guide to Fountains, Monuments and Sculptures, an impressive online resource providing the histories of those features in CPD parks.

Julia told me that the sculpture I was interested in, known as "Lute Lady" or "Seated Woman With Children," was originally part of a bandstand in Lincoln Park designed by Chicago architects Pond & Pond, and sculpted by Lorado Taft in 1915.

The Lute Lady has had a rough ride. In 1983, she and other sculptures were found along Lake Michigan, north of 39th Street, where they were waiting to be used as landfill! Julia sent me a story from the Chicago Tribune (6 May 1983) describing the find, which included columns from the city's old federal courthouse building and the bas relief backdrop to "The Spirit of Music," a memorial to Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Trib article quoted Ben Bentley, then the CPD's director of public information, saying that the CPD warehouse had become too crowded with materials that no one had asked about. The sculptures were going to be used as part of a landfill to help retard lakefront erosion.

"What we have done is a perfectly legitimate thing," Bentley is reported to have said at the time.

Since then, the Federal Building columns and the conserved "Spirit of Music" have been installed in Grant Park, Julia said.

And what of the Lute Lady and her children? "They are currently in storage, which is probably a good thing, because they are marble and really shouldn't be outside in the Chicago climate," she added. "We really need to find a good indoor location for the Lute Lady."

As to the photos in this post: I'm not sure whether they're mine or were taken by my sister Roxe Murray. We shared our prints back then - at least the ones relating to our mother's memorial and family history. Somewhere in my cluttered home office, I have a full photographic study of the Lute Lady, shot from a variety of angles. I'd like to think I was prescient when I took those photographs, but I probably just wanted to fully document my mother's memorial. When I find those prints, I'll scan and post them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

South High School, Denver

Toronto's Bishop Strachan High School is not alone in not knowing why there are certain sculptures (in this case, chimps) on its building. As I discovered in researching the stories behind many of Toronto's architectural faces, that information is lost for a lot of buildings - but I was left with no doubt that architects and stone carvers had specific people or ideas in mind when they created those faces.

One school that has an elaborate sculpture programme and has kept the stories behind it alive in its yearbooks and on its website is South High School in Denver. My friend Kathy Lingo, one of the principals in Avenue L Architects, took me on a tour of the school (designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992) when I visited Denver a few years ago. CORRECTION: Kathy Lingo has informed me that contrary to its claim, South H.S. is not a National Historic Landmark and not listed on the National Register. It is, however, a Denver Historic Landmark. (Thanks, Kathy!)

The Romanesque building, designed by the architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher (actually a whole family of architects, which you can read about in this PDF), was completed in 1924. The Fishers, originally Canadian, became a force in Denver architecture.

Apparently, Arthur A. Fisher was a proponent of using painting and sculpture in Denver public buildings, and influenced the use of the sculptures adorning South High.

The most prominent exterior sculpture is the slightly more than one metre tall gargoyle on the roof, the "symbolic protector of South," according to the school's website. Created by sculptor Robert Garrison, it is said to have been inspired by one on Italy's Spoleto Cathedral.

Striped poles flank the front entrance. They are topped by figures said to be faculty members holding creatures representing final exams. The creatures seem ready to devour students whose heads are on piles of books in front of them (see right).

One of two friezes above the main door (pictured below) is known as "Faculty Row," and shows the principal in the centre of a line of the entire faculty. To his right is the assistant principal; on his left is the dean of girls (no longer a position at South). The second frieze, called "Animal Spirits" and not shown here, has figures the symbolize unscholarly behaviour such as rubber-band shooting and gum chewing. (To think that those were the big behaviour problems in classrooms as recently as 10 years ago; now it's students using cell phones and iPods in class.)

Above another door is a frieze showing children going to school - some eagerly, others less so. The less enthusiastic children tend to be toward the back of the line, like this one seen here in close-up:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chimps in chains, update

I've just heard from Sue Dutton, the archivist for Bishop Strachan School, and she has no information about why a pair of chimps appears on the school building.

" We also have a dragon and a lion, but I have never seen any documentation that explains these decorative choices," she wrote in an e-mail. "The oldest wing of the current school building was built in 1913-1915. Although the BSS Prospectus for the 1915-1916 school year goes to great lengths to describe the style of the new building, Collegiate Gothic, and many modern features such as hot-water heating and sound-proof music rooms, it does not mention these sculptures. I believe it can be assumed they were simply added as whimsical decorations that the girls attending the school would enjoy."

I've read similar articles in architectural journal that frustratingly, elaborate the innards of buildings but either never mention the outside (beyond a simple description, such as "Collegiate Gothic") or refer only vaguely to sculptural details, but not in detail.

But I am convinced that architects didn't and don't stick any old animals or bearded figures on their buildings for the hell of it. There's a reason, although it may have been lost.

South High School in Denver has an extensive sculptural programme - and the background information explaining the architects' choices is contained in the school's yearbook. Stay tuned for a forthcoming post featuring pictures from that school.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why are there two chimps on a girls' school?

The main façade of Bishop Strachan School, the private girls' school in Toronto's tony Forest Hill neighbourhood, sports two stone chimps, each clutching although not apparently restrained by a ball and chain.


I've searched the internet, called the school, checked a few architectural journal articles from 1916 when Sproatt and Rolph designed the building, and not found the answer.

Does anyone out there know, with a reference? Or have any ideas?

Stay tuned - I haven't given up finding the answer.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving to our U.S. friends

Happy Thanksgiving (a few days early) to our American friends!

It seems especially appropriate this year that the symbol of Thanksgiving is a flightless bird, as we wait to see how many travellers are grounded for refusing to submit to security screening "pat-downs."

Turkey-and-corn relief is from the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The last of Vancouver

I've already posted most of the faces that I found on the Hotel Vancouver (sorry, The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver) - here and here.

But after posting the sculpture of George Vancouver's ship Discovery yesterday, I had to finish off with this sculpture from the Georgia Street entrance of the hotel. (Actually, this is the third Hotel Vancouver on this site, at Georgia and Burrard. The Architects were John S. Archibald and John Schofield who began construction in 1928, and finished 11 years later, in time for the first Canadian visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.)

Above it is Hermes, the Greek messenger god who was also the god of commerce. (His Roman counterpart is Mercury.)

And here ends the faces I bagged while in Vancouver. There are more, but there is only so much hunting I can do when I'm travelling for the Day Job.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marine Building, Vancouver (part 2)

The Marine Building, at Hastings and Burrard, is one of Canada's great art deco masterpieces. Construction began in 1929 and almost immediately upon completion in 1930, became a victim of the Great Depression. Its owners had trouble attracting tenants and by 1933, sold the building which had cost $2.3 million (more than $1 million over budget) for a paltry $900,000.

The Marine Building has an interesting history, but I'm keen to get back to the decoration. The Burrard Street entrance (above), features a ship's prow sailing out of the sunset, with Canada geese flying across the rays.

Along the inside of the archway at the entrance are terra cotta reliefs of ships that are significant in Vancouver history — including, of course, Captain George Vancouver's ship, HMS Discovery, with which he explored the coasts of British Columbia in 1792.

As for faces on the Marine building (apart from the faces of the sealife that appear everywhere), there are two images of Neptune. You can glimpse one of them in the picture of the top six or seven storeys in the previous post. Here's a close-up, in which you can clearly see the Roman god of the sea clutching his trident.

Neptune also appears as the figurehead on a ship on a two-storey-long sculptural work on another corner of the building. The detail here also gives a nice close-up (if I do say so myself) of a seahorse:

Marine Building, Vancouver (part 1)

Another McCarter & Nairne work in Vancouver (see article on the Nurses of Vancouver below) is the Marine Building.

I'm interested primarily in buildings with faces, and while the Marine Building has a few of those, it's a riot of sculptural decoration. The exterior is covered with, among other things, terra cotta representations of 1920s-vintage modes of transport.

True to its maritime name, many of these are seagoing vessels, such as a naval ship,

a Viking-type ship,

and a submarine.

There are also a biplane,

a Zeppelin

and a steam locomotive.

More about the history of the building and its faces tomorrow.

Friday, October 29, 2010


... from Vancouver

Vancouver nurses - and gargoyles

If you looked at the Ital Decor slideshow noted (and hyperlinked) in my previous post, you will have noticed that the Ital Decor team also installed gargoyles on Cathedral Place, which I failed to mention. I shot them, but they're quite high up and far back, so this is the best I could do:

I had better luck with these guys from the older Hotel Vancouver:

And see that blue sky? There was no blue sky in Vancouver last week. Truth is, I actually took these pix when I was there in June (for another conference).

Stay tuned for more from Vancouver... although not more nurses. The Cathedral Place "Rhea sisters" were the only ones I got to shoot on my last trip (i.e., the one in June) to Vancouver. But check out the B.C. Nursing History document hyperlinked in my previous post, and you'll see just how many nursing memorials that city has.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The nurses of Vancouver

I was just in Vancouver at a conference attended by nearly 5,000 infectious disease clinicians (for the Day Job, of course), but do you know what I saw the most? Nurses. Architectural nurses.

Vancouver must hold the world's record as the city with the most monuments to nurses. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

The one I saw the most, on my trips between my hotel and the convention centre, was this one, at the corner of Georgia and Howe. (Never mind that the street sign says Burrard.)

There are actually three of her on this building, and the trio are known as the Rhea sisters. (About which, more later.)

This isn't the original building and these aren't the original nurses.

What was first on this spot (in 1929) was the Vancouver Medical-Dental Building. At about the 10th storey level, in each of the three corners of the building that were visible, stood 11-foot tall terra cotta statues of a nursing sister from the First World War.

According to a report (the link is a PDF file) by Nina Rumen and Glennis Zilm of the B.C. History of Nursing Group, architects John Young McCarter and George Colvil Nairne had both served overseas in the First World War. McCarter had been seriously wounded and credited the nursing sisters with saving his life - so when he and Nairne started their firm and got the medical-dental building commission, they saw it as an excellent opportunity to pay tribute to the nurses.

Sculptor and architect Joseph Francis Watson (who worked with the McCarter Nairne firm) designed the nursing sister statues.

The Medical Dental Building was demolished in 1989, and replaced by Cathedral Place, a 23-storey office tower. At the time, there was an effort to save the original statues for the new building, but they were too heavy and difficult to remove. So replicas were made of fiberglass and mounted at about the 3rd-storey level.

The Burnaby firm Ital Décor made the castings from which the new figures were made, and took the least damaged original, patched it and keeps it in the company’s showroom. (You can see a slide show of the project here.)

According to the Rumen-Zilm report, in 1992, the Vancouver museum took a head from one of the broken statues, patched and repaired it and holds it for display. A fiberglass replica is also on display in the Cathedral Place lobby.

That ain’t all. Replicas of the same statues were installed on the University of British Columbia’s Technology Enterprises Facility III, which houses some offices of the UBC School of Nursing.

Almost forgot: the Rhea Sisters? Gono, Dia and Pyo. (medical joke)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let's put on a show!

My friends Michal and Yaniv at the Yonge/Eglinton Aroma Espresso Bar have booked me for a three-week photo exhibition. The pictures, which I hung on Saturday night, are virtually all from Faces on Places, my book on Toronto's gargoyles and other architectural sculpture.

It seemed like a good theme for the period leading up to and including Halloween. Stop by if you get a chance, between now and the 6th of November.

Monday, October 11, 2010

City of angels

Who'da thunk Boston would be a city of angels?

So it seemed to me when I was there about a month ago, in the limited sightseeing I did. (I was there for the Day Job, which involved covering a major infectious disease conference - and being felled by a respiratory infection.)

These cherubs were under the window of my room in the Omni Porter House Hotel:

and these were around the corner on the Tremont Temple Baptist Church:

I know, I know - they're actually called putti (and I've photographed and remarked on other Boston putti in the past), but it wouldn't have sounded as mellifluous to call this post "City of putti," would it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


You all know the photo - "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper," the one by Charles Ebbets of 11 construction workers sitting on a girder, high above Manhattan, having lunch.

Well, New York sculptor Sergio Furnari has rendered them in 3D, and they caught the eye of Les Abro, president and CEO of billboard company Abcon Media. And now a version on Furnari's sculpture is in my neighbourhood.

At first, I thought this was sort of cool. But as I thought and read about the installation, I realized it wasn't done so much in the name of art as for advertising.

As you can see, the lunching construction workers are no longer seated, but standing - standing so they'll be visible behind billboards.

There is some advertising that functions as art, but not in this case. It turns out that Les Abro has been trying to get these sculptures on top of an uptown Toronto building since 2007. His initial target was Yonge and Eglinton, where they would have supported three billboards:

The Yonge and Eglinton area has plenty of tall buildings so this would have fit in - or at least, fit in better than it does in the Yonge and Lawrence area where it is now. But the city councillor for Yonge/Eg nixed the plan.

Abro managed to get a variance in the zoning bylaw from our councillor, and in June, the sculptures went up in the relatively low-rise neighbourhood, at the corner of Yonge and Deloraine:

In fact, Spacing Toronto published an interesting article detailing the whole story.

I want to like these sculptures. I really do.

But they really don't fit in the Yonge/Lawrence neighbourhood, and the 17 figures are mostly hidden by the billboards. I disagree with Edward Brown, writing on the Torontoist website, that the Furnari sculptures represent "art tinged by artful marketing."

It's art obscured by advertising - and advertising that debases public spaces.

Monday, September 20, 2010

High-powered mythological guardians

Theories abound as to why Western architecture has been ornamented with figures — whether they be gods or mortals, celestial beings or rude humans, the devil himself or souls trapped in stone on their way to hell, recognizable animals or bizarre hybrids. One school of thought is that traditionally they were used by the Church to instruct the illiterate masses or terrify them into compliance with the Ten Commandments. Another suggests that the figures were believed to keep away evil spirits and protect a building’s occupants.

The building at 45 Milk Street in Boston is richly endowed, but the figures don’t seem to have any work to do.

It started life in 1893 as the International Trust Company Building, by the architect William Gibbons Preston (1844-1910), who enlarged it in 1906. Sculptor Max Bachman
(1862-1921) provided the ornament which includes Hercules over the front door. (You can tell it’s Herc because he’s wearing the skin of the Nemean lion he killed, with its head as a helmet.)

Hercules is flanked by the most fearsome griffins (also spelled “griffons” and “gryphons”) I’ve ever seen.

But the building seems empty—the main floor looked especially empty although there were lots of lights on, including some very impressive chandeliers. All that high-powered mythological help going to waste…

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ben Franklin and Philly cheesesteak in... Boston?

Yes, I'm using a different background, mere weeks after resuming this blog. My sister Roxe, master genealogist, found this template and used it for her new blog, Genealogy PMP*, and I thought it was so cool that I decided to switch. I don't know how it looks to you out there, but it's pretty unimpressive on the screen of my ancient laptop.

Today's picture is... you guessed it! Benjamin Franklin! (You knew that because of your familiarity with American hundred dollar bills, right?) This piece is on the front of a building on Milk Street in Boston that proclaims itself as Franklin's birthplace. It was around the corner from my hotel in Boston, where I travelled last weekend for the Day Job — another infectious disease meeting, and another infectious disease meeting where I developed a respiratory infection that had me holed up in my hotel room for two days.

It was probably a combination of being sick, the vague similarity between two revolutionary war-era towns and... well, mostly being sick that made me very confused about where I was when I saw this building. Franklin's image is all over Philadelphia. I never associated him with Boston. The room service menu in my hotel didn't have chicken soup, which I craved (of course not! they had only chowdah!) but it did list Philly cheesesteak! (What kind of Boston hotel offers Philly cheesesteak? And no baked beans? Which I didn't really want - I'm just saying.)

So, I was very confused about where I was - the virus, Franklin, Philly cheesesteaks. And staying in a hotel room for 48 hours straight can really mess with your head.

I was scheduled to come last night, which I did, but I was probably too congested to fly. I think I blew out my right ear. I'll post again as soon as I can hear again.

*I know that "Genealogy PMP" looks like it needs an "i," which would turn my sister into a genealogy p*mp. But PMP is the designation of someone who has been accredited by the Project Management Institute, and Roxe's idea with the blog was to describe how she's applying her well-honed project management skills to exploring our ancestry. She's been working on this, on and off, for decades. It's been a mostly discouraging effort, until just recently when she made all kinds of progress on virtually all fronts of our mongrel background - the Irish, Greeks and Germans. So, no p*mp jokes, okay? We're the only ones who can do that.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Time and place

Having spent 10 days in Chicago and with two weeks more off from the day job, I decided to play tourist in Toronto. So I took a double-decker bus tour.

I am as interested in music as the next person — possibly more so, since I used to be a semi-professional musician in another life — but I've never felt the need to be, literally, constantly plugged into the soundtrack of my life. (Neither have I felt the need to be constantly on the phone, but that's a post for another day.)

Anyway, as I was saying before I interrupted myself, I believe in having a life to which the music that I hear forms the soundtrack instead of all-soundtrack-all-the-time.

When I took the coach tour, this girl who sat ahead of me clearly favoured the latter. She generously plugged one ear bud into her own ear, and the second into her mother's ear — rendering them unable to hear the surprisingly informed and witty commentary of the tour guide.

That was their loss, and didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the trip... although I did wonder what the point was of paying nearly $40 and then shutting out the tour guide. (I recognize that language may have been a factor in this case.)

But then the child apparently tired of her iPod — and began serenading us a series of random notes on a blue plastic harmonica, and my mood returned to that one of my stone friends in Chicago:

Monday, August 30, 2010

The strange obsessions of the gargoyle hunter

I don't expect to get much sympathy, but truly, being a gargoyle hunter is not easy. It's not easy on the hunter and it's not easy on the hunter's friends. The only person it's at all easy on is the gargoyle (and yes, I realize I just called a stone building ornament a "person").

If you've been following this blog of late, you'll know that I spent 10 days at the end of July in Chicago with my sister Roxe, the family genealogist (whose life is also hard, but I'll her get her own blog to complain about the travails of the family-hunter). We attended one arranged family reunion (the Murrays) and a dinner Roxe organized with a few members of the Kalodimos side of the family.

As you can sort of tell from this map of Chicago* I posted in our hotel room, replete with little Post-It flags showing all the places we had to go, we had some ground to cover. For reasons too complicated to go into here, Roxe did all the driving and I did all the navigating. But everywhere we went, I was checking out buildings for interesting faces. (While I was navigating - which is easier and safer to do than gargoyle-hunting while driving.)

To her credit, Roxe did not wring my neck, although she did ask several times, "What?! What happened?! What are you looking at?!" thinking a crime in progress or a crash site had caught my attention.

She also agreed to drive up and down Clark Street so I could find this fellow

who I shot when I was in the city in 2004. On that trip, I rode the #22 Clark bus all the way to the northernmost end of the line, way past Diversey where I lived for a short time. (Sorry to bore those not familiar with Chicago with these details.) It was a long ride, up to Devon (which Chicagoans mispronounce). It was on that bus ride that I saw this guy, hopped off and shot him (and a partner he had on a neighboring building) and I thought it would be fun to find him again and reshoot him.

We drove up and down Clark Street three times — and I never saw him or his friend. Who knows what happened to my stone friends? I fear his building may have been torn down in the intervening six years. I actually felt bereft... until Roxe had enough of Clark Street and announced that we were going to do some actual genealogy work, whereupon she turned into one of the cemeteries just off Clark where our maternal grandparents are buried.

* A common feature of Chicago maps is the truncation of the South Side. To any Chicago mapmakers who might be reading this: give us back the South Side! It should be possible to put the whole of Chicago on a map. Besides, the South Side is an important part of the city. When was the last time the North Side baseball team won a pennant, never mind the World Series, hmmm?