“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man?”–St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century
If you’ve frequented the big cities up North, then the architectural iconography that you’ll find in Asheville, North Carolina, will come as nothing new. Jutting from the Jackson Building, Western North Carolina’s first skyscraper, four menacing gargoyles, carved in stone, howl at the distant forested hills. Several blocks over, on the north side of the Grove Arcade, a pair of griffins guard the building’s main entrance, while a hundred or more grotesques, with mouths agape, crown the top of the city’s largest structure. Nothing new, perhaps, if you’ve been to Europe or the cities up North, but to those whose stomping grounds are in the South, Asheville’s gargoyles, griffins and grotesques can come as a big surprise.
Down the street from the Grove Arcade, the Drhumor (pronounced “Drummer”) Building features an elaborate frieze. Farther down the road, the Biltmore Estate serves up a serendipitous smattering of howling beasts, horrid faces, spiraling Serbian crosses and even a bear dipping its paw into a honey pot.
The Estate, as well as the Jackson Building (where, incidentally, Walt Disney once worked as a young draftsman), features some of the city’s most dramatic gargoyles. At the back of the Biltmore House, several of these creatures adorn the downspouts. These are true gargoyles, as these fearsome creatures were originally designed to carry rainwater clear of the walls in ancient times. The word, in fact, comes from the French gargouille and is thought to have originated from the gurgling sound the water made as it passed through the mouths of the figures. Later, gargoyles were put on the outsides of churches and buildings to scare away evil spirits, an idea that appealed to the paganism that permeated early Christianity.
Looking at these creatures atop the Biltmore House, you’d expect a number of eerie stories to be associated with them. Not so, says Rick King, vice president of Biltmore House. “Most of them were specified by the architect,” he says. “Why he chose certain ones, we really don’t know.” What is known is that the architect and Vanderbilt roamed the countryside of France sketching elements to be incorporated in the design. The Estate’s new rooftop tour gets visitors closer to the design elements that make the country’s largest private residence one of America’s most architecturally interesting.
The Estate also has a high number of grotesques, sculptures consisting of human and animal forms, fantastically combined and often interwoven with foliage and flowers. Carved from limestone delivered by rail from Bedford, Indiana, the Estate’s grotesques range from sea serpents to gnomelike creatures carrying battle axes, shields and wearing Norman helmets.
Visitors to the Estate will also notice two lions on each side of the doors leading into the house. These are wonderful architectural embellishments, but they are not true griffins, which in ancient and medieval times were carved from stone in the shape of a lion with an eagle’s head, wings and talons. In those days, they were emblems of guardianship, often associated with the gates of a great city.
The lion griffins guarding the Grove Arcade, however, are symbolically accurate, according to architectural historian Harry Weiss. “It’s interesting that in the case of the Grove Arcade, the lions are strategically placed as they would have always been historically,” says Weiss, who serves as executive director of The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.
If you’re like most people, you probably associate the hills of Appalachia with down home folklore and crafts. So how did these exotic architectural elements become part of Asheville’s legacy? Part of the reason, of course, is that George Vanderbilt brought with him skilled European artisans whose work and aesthetic influence left a living legacy not only on Biltmore House itself but also on many of the buildings downtown. In addition, Vanderbilt brought with him “a whole horde of people with sophistication, education and aesthetic sensibility,” Weiss says. “They were a class of consumer who purchased the same services for design and craft as did Vanderbilt, although admittedly on a much smaller scale.”
That’s the reason that in downtown Asheville, you will find the artistic influences of the Estate artisans and craftsman. The frieze adorning the Drhumor Building was carved by English sculptor Frederic Miles, who came to Asheville as a stone carver for the Biltmore Estate. The architect of the Basilica of St. Lawrence was Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish craftsman who Vanderbilt brought to his stately home to do tile work.
The presence of these European craftsman and the abundance of the area’s natural resources created the right environment for great architecture. “It became a very heady, fermenting kind of atmosphere where you had the talent, the aspiration, the aesthetic sensibility, the technical craft and design means to accomplish good design, and you had the client who wanted it and could pay for it,” Weiss says. “There were very few places where all of that came together in a historical moment.”
But that’s not the whole story of why Asheville has managed to preserve the legacy of its buildings. The rest of the story is that in the 1920s and 30s, the city went broke.
During those days, Asheville was one of the fastest growing cities on the East Coast. It was a cosmopolitan, forward-looking city with great ambition. Emboldened by Asheville’s popularity, the city government took on some big public work projects, all funded by bonds. “The popular conception was that the city had more bonded debt per capita than any other city in the United States,” Weiss says. Then the Depression came, and a dearth of capital followed. There was no money to rebuild, tear down or renovate. So like Savannah and Charleston, Asheville was stuck with its aging buildings.
Today, of course, those old buildings are one of the city’s greatest assets. Preservation has become the rule rather than the exception. Beginning this winter, the city and developers will start work to return the Grove Arcade to its former glory. Plans for the Arcade, which during the 1930s was one of the country’s first shopping malls, call for 70 shops and restaurants, a number hotel rooms, condominiums, offices and at least one public-use facility on the roof, possibly an ice skating rink, bandshell or restaurant.
If there is a link between the revitalization of the Grove Arcade and the gargoyles, griffins and grotesques that give many of the city’s buildings their indelible character, it is the desire to preserve. For if nothing else, these architectural embellishments “point to a time when function wasn’t the only purpose of putting up a building,” says local artist Kathleen Burke.
Like Burke, artist and art historian Sharon Trammel says that these stone carvings seem to breathe new life into the buildings they inhabit. And while the gargoyles, griffins and grotesques are “usually something you associate with Northern cities,” she says, there is definitely one advantage that Asheville’s stone-carved creatures have over the ones up North. You don’t have to crane your neck as much to see them.