SPRINGFIELD, Mo.– The four gargoyles, one on each corner of an upper tower, were in the exact same spots when the building opened in 1894 as a federal post office, customs house and courthouse.
From what we can see through the telephoto lens of photographer Andrew Jansen, they appear to be of the same design.
They look like the are happy.
They were described as “grinning, wrinkled, grotesque gargoyles projecting from each corner” in the nomination form used to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building is at 830 Boonville Ave., where Boonville intersects with the Chestnut Expressway. The city has owned it since 1938; it was placed on the Register in 1979.
Why are they up there? – you ask.
I’ll first give you the easy answer, Chris.
They have a function. These gargoyles serve as water spouts.
Gargoyles extend from buildings and often are connected to gutters or pipes that collect rainwater and divert it from the structure to prevent water damage.
Gargoyles were popular in Gothic architecture, a style that flourished in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages. Gothic architecture originated in 12th-century France, it was widely used for cathedrals and churches until the 16th century.
Stone cutters back then realized they could add flourish to their work by having water pour forth from the stone mouths of, for example, lions, or more whimsical or grotesque creatures and characters..
But that was hundreds of years ago. In Europe.
Why did we have gargoyles in Springfield in 1894?
Because what is stylish comes and goes not only in the world of fashion – I’m waiting for the return of Nehru jackets – but in architecture, as well.
The nomination form provides a detailed history of the building. The Historic City Hall is a “substantial example of the Romanesque Revival style of design in its variation known as Richardsonian Romanesque after its major proponent in the latter part of the nineteenth century: Henry Hobson Richardson.”
I don’t really know what that means and you probably don’t either, unless you’re an architect or for some unknown reason majored in “Richardsonian Romanesque Style.”
Let me explain. Henry Hobson Richardson was a prominent American architect best known for his work in a style that became known, in his honor, Richardsonian Romanesque.
Mr. Richardson was born in 1838 and died in 1886. He apparently liked to throw back, as we say today, to gargoyles. He also apparently influenced many architects in the latter half of the 19th century.
Richardson was not the architect of our Historic City Hall.
Documents indicate the architect was Willoughby James Edbrooke (1843-1896.) He was supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department from 1891 to 1892. According to Wikipedia, he “remained faithful to a Richardsonian Romanesque style.” So, he liked gargoyles, too.
Edbrooke was followed in that Treasury position by an architect by the name of James H. Windrum, who is also believed to have worked on the design of the Historic City Hall.
Regarding the gargoyles, don’t be confused by what you see at what was once the main entrance to the building on the south side – off Chestnut Expressway.
Those two waterspouts have a “foliate” motif – which is architecture-speak for resembling leaves or being leaflike. In other words, they don’t have faces and are only “gargoyle-like.”
A new post office was built next door in 1937 at 840 Boonville at a cost of $700,000. Again, a federal courthouse also was located in this new post office. The building also housed other federal agencies.
As a result of the move, the city bought the post office building at Boonville and Chestnut Expressway and in 1938 moved operations from the third floor of the Greene County courthouse into the now-former post office.
History repeated itself in 1988 when the federal government built another new post office at 500 W. Chestnut Expressway – where it is today – and the city, again, bought the former post office and in 1992 moved in.
Today, this structure s called the Busch Municipal Buildings and it’s where most city operations are headquartered.
A tour of the inside
In reporting this column, I realized I know very little about the Historic City Hall.
I have never attended a City Council meeting in my 7½ years at the News-Leader. I have never been on the second or third floors of the building.
So on Wednesday I walked the one block to Historic City Hall where I suddenly remembered the building is a locked facility.
Today, it houses the administrative offices of the city’s fire department; the city’s risk management office; the police and fire pension board; the office of Ozark Greenways; the Council Chambers on the third floor; and many other empty offices.
Nevertheless, city employee Christopher Aiken graciously gave me a quick tour.
(He actually much prefers that you call 417-864-1000 in advance to schedule a tour.)
Inside, if you can move your vision beyond the old, stained and ill-fitting carpet that covers most of the floor space, the interior of the building is remarkable. It’s a gem.
In the turret at the southwest corner a magnificent oak staircase winds up to the third-floor. The windows in the turret actually are curved.
Most of the ceilings are still 12 feet 7 inches off the ground. Marble and wood mantles adorn fireplaces in some of the offices, which have the original crown molding.
The building is incredibly solid.
In fact, it is so solid that the high cost of demolition was a factor in the decisions over the years to save, restore and re-purpose the building.
It is made of 3-foot thick limestone quarried in Indiana.
The building was home to the Art Museum from 1937 to 1955 and the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County was on the third-floor until 2011.
John Sellars, executive director of the History Museum on the Square, can vouch for the bomb-shelter-like construction.
“You could not get a wifi signal to go from one room to another,” Sellars recalled.
By the way, I asked, why was limestone from Indiana used to build a post office in Springfield, Missouri? Wasn’t there limestone here?
Sellars’ best guess is that the federal government had a designated vendor for limestone,
“There is a post office that is almost identical that was built of limestone at about the same time in Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he says.
How did the Indiana limestone get here?
“By train,” he says.
Wouldn’t that have cost a small fortune?
Yes, he says, it would have
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper seven years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 836-1253, email@example.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.