Show Me the Alligator Gargoyles!

Last week when I was working on the Tower Building post, I opened up that valuable little book Jackson Landmarks, compiled and published by the Jackson Junior League back in 1982. Every time I peruse this book I find something new, and this time, I took time to read some of the introductory material. There are three short essays at the beginning, and they aren’t your average Junior League essays–the first by Eudora Welty titled “Jackson: a neighborhood,” the second by retired MDAH director Charlotte Capers, “The House,” and this third by Thomas Spengler, “Time Was . . . When the fun was . . . on Capitol Street.”

Spengler’s entire essay is worth reading–all three are obviously–but here I’m focusing on his remembrance of the “other” iconic skyscraper in downtown Jackson, the Lamar Life Building. He starts off with a provocative statement and continues with a priceless story:

The trouble with preservationists is that sometimes they don’t preserve enough.

Now you take the Lamar Life Building.

Oh, no, no, no. Don’t get me wrong. The Lamar Life is in no danger of falling victim to the wrecker’s ball–not that lovely neo-Gothic structure, unique in our town and faithful to the medieval models it imitates: ornamentation in stone, a suggestion of buttresses, and–best of all!–gargoyles.

The gargoyles are there yet. Look up and you’ll see them, resting their chins on their bony hands and smirking at all of us below who don’t have their confidence, their prideful certainty of their place in the world.

But notice I instructed you to look up. In fact, you’re going to have to look way up, because the gargoyles are on the edge of their own little domain just below the clock at the top of the building. And they’re hard to see, which gets me back to my point; sometimes preservationists don’t preserve enough.

You see, when the Lamar Life Building was young (and so was I, for that matter) there were upside-down alligators that decorated the structure as well as those gargoyles. The alligators, though, were at street level, flanking the main entrance and thus very visible to passersby. You didn’t have to look up to see them; you only had to turn your head as you walked by. Why were they removed and the gargoyles spared? The alligators were every bit as Gothic in the mood they created–equally ugly, equally threatening, even more evil than the gargoyles because they were upside down, heads pointed toward nether regions where all sorts of horrors might wait just below Capitol Street’s placid and sun-warmed surface. Oh they were scary to a lad of five or so, who held tightly to a parent’s hand as he walked pas the building.

But it was worth risking a scary moment to get to Capitol Street because that’s where the entertainment was. As a matter of fact, the first entertainment I recall involved those very gargoyles on the then-new Lamar Life Building. It was the death-defying act of a “human fly,” a daring species of showman who practiced his trade in the small cities across America which were just about that time erecting 10-, 12-, even 20-story skyscrapers. The human fly’s act was simple. He came to town, climbed the outside of the town’s tallest building, collected his pre-arranged fee, and then departed. It may have been simple, but a large crowd of Jacksonians stood on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion (then unfenced) across the street and watched with sucked-in-breath excitement as the fly began his ascent. And how did he begin? By grabbing the snout of one of those upside-down alligators, that’s how. They should have been left in place against the possible return of the human fly, if for no other reason.

Wow, you couldn’t make up such a great story about architecture! And alligator gargoyles?! The concept blows my mind! But why have I never seen pictures of these wonderful alligator gargoyles? How could such amazing creatures have gone unphotographed? Surely they were photographed and I just haven’t seen the images. If you know of pictures of these alligators, let the rest of us know in the comments and we’ll work to get those images here on MissPres. Their removal is very unfortunate, but if we can bring them back to life digitally at least we’ll know what we’re missing.

Lamar Life Building (1924-25), Jackson

P.S.  Apparently the National Cathedral in Washington has some alligator gargoyles: http://dspace.wrlc.org/view/ImgViewer?url=http://dspace.wrlc.org/doc/manifest/2041/73667

Maybe we should launch a raid.



Categories: Architectural Research, Cool Old Places, Jackson

17 replies

  1. But it’s not even upside down!

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  2. This is fascinating stuff. Is the story contained in these comments that the humanesque gargoyles (at least the lower level ones shown) were a compromise between scary traditional gargoygles and cheerful ones true? Is it true that this was to be an art deco style buliding but the archited decided to blend it in with a neighboring church? http://martykittrellphotos.blogspot.com/2010/06/lamar-life-building.html

    But as to these alligators, taking them from that “other building” would not work because the Lamar alligators were special Mississippi alligators, somehow.

    P. 25 of this book about Eudora Welty quotes her as saying that the alligators were at the entrance “which related it to Mississippi” and also sets out her father’s relationship to the building and its Fort Worth architect. (Apparently the original text also has a photograph of her atop the building, when she was 17.) http://books.google.com/books?id=dERHOmATIhoC&pg=PA25&lpg=PA25&dq=%22lamar+life+building%22+++original+entrance&source=bl&ots=mjYS9k_m2j&sig=sxUxZ0ARg494bfrijDD2KsuEbXU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-mMiUOamGqbfyAHSnYH4Bg&sqi=2&ved=0CFEQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=%22lamar%20life%20building%22%20%20%20original%20entrance&f=false

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  3. What a great book. I hope we get a chance to see the other essays.
    The difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque is that a gargoyle is tied into a drainage system and a grotesque is just a funny face, animal or plant.

    I’m rounding up climbing equipment. Should we buy plane tickets to DC and be reimbursed by MissPres later or will we be chartering a bus? :-)

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  4. Why do they put those things up so high that we can’t see them every time we walk by on the street. Ok, maybe that’s why. We don’t want to look at them EVERY TIME we walk by. HA!

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  5. It’s my understanding that the Alligator Gargoyles on the Lamar Life Building served as Rain Spouts. Source: Patti Carr Black’s book entitled “Art in Mississippi, 1720-1980″ (Chapter 12, Page 146). I can’t help but wonder if the alligators were removed because they directed the flowing water across the sidewalk.

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  6. Here’s a close-up photo I took in 2001 of one of the grotesques on the Lamar Life Building.

    http://www.newsouthernview.com/pages/nsvcs_photo_example04.html

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    • Eudora’s description of the Lamar Life was probably my first introduction to the building–I read that book in college before I had ever even imagined I might move to Jackson. Great book, great quotes!

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      • Well, with that statement from you, the book goes on my list of pleasurable things to do. The bit in the preview I read seemed exceptionally good in terms of describing an era and building, and then ending powerfully with a decisive but understated “thump” about her father’s death. (The reader mind supplies the fact that brings us to the Depression.) It reminded me in that way of the end of Elizabeth Bowen’s “Bowen’s Court”, and I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling the book for anyone who reads this and wonders about checking it out.

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  7. i don’t have pics of the aligators but i do have a Lamar Life Building piggy bank

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  8. If someone had painted the Alligator gargoyles and the paint began to fail would that be referred to as alligatoring Alligators?

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  9. Great topic.

    The Lamar Life building is one of the most interesting buildings in Mississippi.
    After years of admiring this work, I always find a new detail that I’ve never noticed.

    Thanks for the lesson. I also thought those little stone figures were “nice gargoyles” rather than “grotesques” .

    Does anyone have info on the allegorical interpretations of these “grotesques” ?
    The street level figures seem to represent life. On one side is a young man holding an hour glass opposite an elderly figure in contemplation.

    I hope someone can provide photos of the Gators .

    Until then, I found some photos of the interior of the Lamar Life clock tower :

    http://www.trinitifx.com/2006/05/clocktower.html

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