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The Gargoyles of Penn

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On our recent college tour one of the most interesting places we stopped was the University of Pennsylvania. It's a campus steeped in history, and I expected to see old buildings and hear a lot about Benjamin Franklin. What I didn't expect was to see one of the most remarkable selections of gargoyles I've seen outside of the Gothic cathedrals of England, and in a state of preservation which is unequaled among the monuments of the Old World because these are so relatively new.

The largest number of these gargoyles can be found on Penn's Quadrangle, a huge dormitory which is such a bizarre architectural anomaly that it's worthy of a few comments in its own right. The Quadrangle was built in the early 1900s, but for reasons I can't begin to fathom, it's an exaggerated recreation of the Tudor-period architectural style most commonly associated with Hampton Court Palace. It combines a basic facade of red brick with decorative elements carved in soft limestone, including a set of over 150 gargoyles on every topic imaginable.

Hampton Court's gargoyles are mostly common mythological creatures, but the Quadrangle features a much greater variety, covering college life, academic disciplines, various crafts and trades, and mythology ranging from the whimsical to the grim and foreboding, including several Danse Macabre themes, angels of death, and paganistic foliated heads. Plus there are mermaids, football players, goblins, baseball players, centaurs, and professors. It's a mad hodgepodge which takes hours and a sharp eye to fully appreciate. I wonder if the students living in the dorms in the Quadrangle take them for granted or realize what a marvel they and the building itself are.

The Quadrangle isn't the only place on the Penn campus with gargoyles. Excellent examples appear on some of the older College Houses, and the Dental School building which was built a few years after the Quadrangle has the second-largest selection. Its gargoyles include animals and birds and a selection of disturbing representations of people with dental afflictions and various physical deformities.

All of these gargoyles add an element of whimsy to the Penn campus which is very endearing — Franklin was known for his peculiar wit and the school he founded seems to have continued that tradition. Penn is an old college in American terms, at over 250 years (fourth oldest in the nation), but the unusual architecture and features like the gargoyles give it a link to even earlier times which makes you feel like you're part of history and part of a grand academic tradition going back to the gargoyle-adorned cathedral colleges of the Middle Ages. Even if you don't have a reason to be at Penn and just happen to be in Philadelphia, take some time to walk around Penn's campus and check out the gargoyles. You probably won't be able to find them all, but you'll see more than an eyeful.

I had a great set of original gargoyle photos taken with my Pentax D20, but a bad SD card foiled my plans, so I drew these images from several sources. Several came from the Philadelphia Public Art program's website, which is worth a good long look because Philly has some impressive public art. I also used some photos from a collection you can find on flickr.com. You can also find a fairly complete list of all the gargoyles at the Penn library.

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About Dave Nalle

  • http://tolstoyscat.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Great article Dave. I love these. They’re amazing.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That’s a surprise, Dave. Showing other interests and talents. If you could only stay away from politics, you’d be a lovable person.