Downtown is rife with stone beasts
By Bethany Hofstetter
Friday, July 28, 2006
It’s a jungle out there. Just look up.
Hiding in plain sight on Downtown’s high-rises, lions gnash their teeth at passing cars, eagles and griffins perch above doorways, and dragons threaten to breathe fire on passers-by.
“(Architects) used these animals for decoration, maybe like a flamingo on a lawn today,” says docent Gabe Funaro, of Mt. Lebanon, who leads a city safari of these architectural creatures and gargoyles with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation’s Downtown Dragon tour.
“It makes the building unique,” Funaro says. “People may not know what the building is, but they will remember that it is the fish building.”
Past the peaceful storefronts of Station Square, Funaro finds a fierce beast with a dog’s face guarding a fountain. The winged animal once stared down at traffic from the side of a now-demolished Liberty Avenue building, but today, its eyes focus over the reflective pool, protecting the pennies and wishes thrown into the water.
Across the Smithfield Street Bridge is the House Building, two blocks from the Mon River, where two creatures splash out of the side of the building. Called a catfish and dolphin by bystanders, the adornments have no real purpose.
Louis Martorella, owner of Buon Giorno, walks into the building every morning to open his restaurant but isn’t fazed by the fangs sticking out of the open mouths of the fish.
“I don’t notice them much, but people from out of town always look up,” Martorella says.
Funaro weaves through the sidewalk traffic to a 116-year-old building, now an attorneys’ office. Claws of a winged dragon grip the sandstone facade, and the beast snarls from its perch toward a parking garage across the street.
Safely on the ground, Funaro walks past the creature and ducks under a low tree branch as he makes his way to Fourth Street. Turning the corner, he stands face-to-face with a giant lion at the entrance to Dollar Bank but doesn’t blink an eye.
“They don’t look ferocious,” Funaro says. “They are more warm, catlike lions.”
One large brown lion sits erect, watching visitors ascend the steps to the bank and looking toward its brother resting its head on a paw.
Across the street, dragons guard their home turf on the Fidelity Building. Puffing out their chests, fire curls out of their mouths above the arched doorways.
These creatures are called grotesques, as opposed to gargoyles, because they serve no function. Gargoyles are built into a structure to spit water away from a building; today’s architects use gutters.
The few real gargoyles left in Pittsburgh are at the top of the First Presbyterian Church, Downtown. Beasts, poised with their mouths open, prepare to empty rain water toward the ground.
In contrast to the angelic and religious windows of the church, the gargoyles sneer on the outside of the building. That doesn’t bother Mary Jane Snyder, church secretary and receptionist, who finds working in the architecturally unique building awe-inspiring.
“Gargoyles serve a functional purpose,” Snyder says. “I don’t know that it would be terribly charming to have water conducted through an angel.”
Bethany Hofstetter can be reached at email@example.com or 412-380-5687.
This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review