SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Even with all the coronavirus closures and stay-at-home restrictions, you still can enjoy San Antonio’s many architectural wonders while walking at a safe distance from others. And what better to appreciate in these troubled times than the city’s many gargoyles, those stone-cold OGs of warding off evil?
For nearly a century, downtown San Antonio has been home to several dozen of the most macabre characters to ever grace a Gothic cathedral or opening shot of a horror film. We’re talking dragonlike creatures that rear their ugly heads around the Tower Life Building, plus creepy puffy faces that line what used to be the Nix Medical Center and weird winged emblems around the Emily Morgan Hotel that look like the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz.”
You’ve got to get outside to get some exercise, so break up the monotony of your neighborhood walks with a trip downtown to peruse these creepy building additions. As long as you’re keeping your distance from others, this is perfectly allowable under San Antonio’s stay-at-home rules.
One San Antonio man has visited these gargoyles so often, he considers them friends.
“If you’re out doing a bicycle ride or walking the dog, you can have little friends on the corners of the buildings and try to guess their stories and make up their stories,” Vince Michael, an architectural historian and executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio told the San Antonio Express-News. “To me, there’s a little Jazz Age sensibility in having those wild caricature gargoyles.”
As Michael did before the pandemic, the San Antonio native still makes his morning solo bike ride through downtown, where he often looks up to appreciate those more ghoulish urban fixtures. He noted the Nix, Tower Life and Emily Morgan buildings all were designed and built in the 1920s, so they favor that decade’s soaring Art Deco style with a touch of Gothic.
“But the gargoyles are sort of an exception,” Michael said. “Those are just sort of moments of whimsy and fancy.”
First, a little clarification: Most gargoyles aren’t really gargoyles.
Technically, a gargoyle is designed to drain water from a building to minimize rain damage. A gargoyle that doesn’t drain water is a “grotesque” or “chimera,” though the terms have become interchangeable.
The term “gargoyle” comes from the French word gargouille, which in English means “throat.” Michael noted the word gargoyle is an example of onomatopoeia, much like “zap” or “splash.”
“It’s literally the sound of the water coming out,” Michael said.
The word’s etymology, however, isn’t all that wet. According to legend, a fire-breathing dragon called la gargouille once terrorized the French town of Rouen in the seventh century - that is, until St. Romanus subdued the foul beast with a crucifix and dragged it back to town to be burned at the stake.
When the creature’s head and neck resisted the flames, Romanus had it mounted on the town’s new church built in his name. Originally hung to scare off evil spirits, the monster’s head doubled as a hideous waterspout that drained rainwater down off the roof and out the beast’s mouth.
The first man-made gargoyles popped up around medieval churches in 13th century Europe, emblems for the evils outside and the sanctity within, though the Egyptians and ancient Greeks used similar lion’s head waterspouts on their structures.
Jane Martin, who teaches architectural history at San Antonio College and who runs the guided walking tour, Architours San Antonio, said San Antonio’s gargoylelike sculptures likely are made of decorative cast stone.
“They haven’t deteriorated,” Martin said. “That’s why we know they’re not carved marble or stone. They have survived, just like the buildings have survived.”
The Tower Life originally opened June 1, 1929, as the Smith-Young Tower, an octagonal office building owned by brothers John H. Smith and F. Albert Smith with their attorney J.W. Young.
Martin noted San Antonio architects Atlee B. Ayres and his son Robert Ayres worked on the 31-story skyscraper, though it was the younger Ayres who came up with the design after graduating with his architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
When the Smith-Young first opened, it housed the city’s first Sears & Roebuck department store on its first six floors and was so overwhelmed its opening night that some curiosity-seekers had to be turned away.
As for the historic landmark’s more striking tenants, the building’s 23rd and 29th floors each feature a row of fanged gargoyles as well as hoary goblin heads and hooded faces that also ring the building’s lower level. Martin believes the Gothic revival of the 1920s likely inspired the young Ayres to add the grotesques.
Those Tower Life gargoyles haven’t necessarily seen it all. Contrary to urban myth, John Smith never leapt to his death off the building when the stock market crashed. Nor did the tower serve as a mooring mast for the Goodyear Blimp, though the building did once bear a 150-foot antenna in the 1950s for a television station that would later be known as KENS.
The Smith-Young had many different owners and names after it fell into receivership in the 1930s. H.B. Zachry bought the building in 1943, and the Zachrys renamed it the Tower Life Building in 1961.
The 13-story structure near the Alamo originally was called the Medical Arts Building. It was completed in April 1926 to house a hospital and doctors’ offices.
Architect Ralph Cameron designed the V-shaped building with cast iron pieces and a copper roof, along with a corner tower that looks like a chateau. But a closer look at the building’s ornamentation reveals even more sculptural details, some of which look downright odd and even unsettling for the site of a hospital.
Martin noted some of the stone faces seen around the former Medical Arts Building appear to be in pain as if to represent various ailments for which people would come to the building to get treated. For instance, a hooked-nose face seen scowling from the upper level appears to suffer from Bell’s palsy.
But perhaps the most striking “patients” of the old hospital building are the two gnarled figures that repeat under two ground-level window arches. According to hotel manager Kole Siefken, each window’s robed duo represents common maladies, with one figure clutching its stomach and the other figure holding its head in one hand and its tongue in the other.
Above each of those arches looms a caduceus, the winged staff entwined with two snakes that’s used as a symbol of medicine.
Then there are those other random Gothic details around the Emily Morgan exterior.
Rows of griffins and what look like monkey faces with wings line the building, each grouping framed by a stoic crowned face. And the hotel’s corner tower bears its own share of bizarre, simian-like faces sticking out their tongues.
The Medical Arts Building was converted into office space in 1976, then recognized by the National Register of Historic Places the following year. It opened to the public as the Emily Morgan Hotel in 1984 and underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2012.
Developer Joseph M. Nix opened the Nix Professional Building in late 1930 to top his previous creation, the Medical Arts Building. Texas architect Henry T. Phelps designed the Nix as an Art Deco skyscraper, and it was billed as the first professional building with a complete hospital, doctors’ offices and parking under one roof, with more floors, hospital space and beds than the Medical Arts site.
But whereas the Medical Arts Building’s exterior included winged wonders and sculptures of the ill, the Nix’s sole exterior characters are a quirky set of five faces that anchor the building’s third-level window ledges, repeating under the windows on three sides of the former hospital. Those faces include what looks like a bespectacled male, a pipe-chomping sailor and a not-so-merry soul with a swollen cheek.
According to a 1995 Express-News article, library volunteers at the Conservation Society of San Antonio said the faces represented great physicians of ancient Greece, such as Hippocrates, and the health care deities invoked in the Hippocratic Oath, which include Apollo and Panacea. However, the conservation society could not find the source for that information.
Martin believes the Nix face with the glasses represents a doctor, though she’s uncertain about the others. She did note it was unusual for the Nix to sport such faces on the side that overlooks the San Antonio River since it was undeveloped at the time.
Last year, the Nix shut its doors after decades of service. An affiliate of the Weslaco-based InnJoy Hospitality bought the Nix building in December. The Nix reportedly could be reborn as a luxury hotel.
Michael noted that in the wake of the coronavirus, the gargoyles of downtown San Antonio practically outnumber any tourists or other foot traffic. But he stressed such quirky caricatures still beg to be discovered or rediscovered.
“It’s one of the reasons people should look up,” Michael said. “It’s a good reminder that there’s a lot of delight to be found in looking up from the sidewalk.”
And when it comes to scaring off the bad stuff, now more than ever we’ll look to any help we can get.
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