Q & A on architectural ornament


I recently got a tour of 4 S. Gifford in Elgin. It is a fascinating building. It was originally either two or four apartments – I can’t tell for sure. It does have two nice parlors with fireplace mantels. In one of them they refinished the oak floors One bathroom is original but little else of the original fabric is left inside. Above the entrance door is a frieze of alternating bull skulls and swags. I’m sure there is some incredible symbolism attached to it. I wondered if you might have knowledge of symbolism in architecture? Would you have a reference book on it or perhaps you could direct me to one? I would love to learn more and hear your opinion.
In the transom above the door is a frieze of winged lions. Any idea what they signify? I’ve heard of griffins — winged lions with an eagle’s head. I wonder what it would signify on a building??

Dan Miller, Elgin

I don’t have a short answer for the stags and swags but they are common in post-1890 Beaux-Arts buildings, which means many architect-designed buildings of 1890-1930. At base the symbolism is simply bountifulness and plenty – they symbolize having plenty to eat. The griffins are very common on English Renaissance buildings, and hence on Georgian and Colonial.

I just checked Meyer’s Handbook of Ornament which says “the Griffin is associated in Antiquity with fire; hence his frequent appearance with candleabra on friezes, &c. In Heraldry the Griffin is the symbol of wisdom and watchfulness.” Meyer include chimera (a more lionesque head-like griffin) with the griffin category.

Of the other, Meyer says: “Festoons of fruits hanging in deep curves between rosettes, candleabra, skulls of animals, &c., are common in the Roman style. The origin of this…Festoons of real fruit were hung as a decoration on the friezes of temples, alternating with the real Skulls of slaughtered sacrifical animals…” He explains it moved from sacred to secular architecture in the Renaissance “and has remained in use to the present time.” which is 1894. That date is pretty close to this building.

hope that helps


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