Fanciful ornaments breeding in St. Joseph

Saturday, February 11, 2006

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- As the sun sets over the Missouri River, Roofus sits silently on the apex of a tower, facing the skyline of downtown St. Joseph, a mixture of church steeples and office buildings.

Those driving by might not notice him at first, looming high above the street, even though his large, muscular winged form is impressive.

Roofus is the king of the gargoyles -- at least that's what his owners, Fred and Deborah Weems, tell children. He not only guards the Weems' home at 11th and Messanie streets, he rules over the other 20 gargoyles on the property.

Among the named ones are Portius on the front porch; Wally, hanging on a wall; Holden, a gargoyle that dangles a bird feeder from the side of one wall; and Ralph and Willard, who guard the front door.

Roofus is their favorite.

"We wanted something fun," says Deborah Weems. "We've had complete strangers pull over and stop and take pictures."

The gargoyles look right at home on the 7,500-square-foot Victorian-style home. However, when Roofus was first placed on the roof, the owners had mixed reactions from others.

"Our contractor thought he was hideous looking," Deborah Weems says.

Another person accused them of putting up something satanic, but the couple says that person could not have been more wrong.

"They are on every great church in Europe and even the big ones here," Fred Weems says.

In fact, Fred Weems visited some of the most famous gargoyles at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

"We thought they were really cool," he says. "Why should only the churches have all the fun? They are here to scare the evil spirits away. That is what we were told."

Historically, gargoyles were intended as waterspouts and drains to keep rainwater from damaging the foundations of buildings. They can be traced back 4,000 years to Egypt, Rome and Greece.

Technically, a true gargoyle is a waterspout, and when they are only ornaments, they are called a grotesque, says Todd Cooper, owner of Twilight Gardens Concrete Castings in St. Joseph.

"But it's like so many people call any kind of cola a Coke," he says. "The same is true for gargoyles."

Cooper also sells griffins, which are similar to gargoyles only they are more birdlike with beaks and feathered wings. The most popular gargoyles, he says, are the traditional flying gremlin creatures, but whimsical varieties such as a biker gargoyle on a Harley also are popular.

"The cool thing about making it is I can do anything people can come up with," Cooper says.

Marsha Taft ordered a custom gargoyle from Cooper with yellow eyes to sit on the roof of her home on 24th and Faraon streets. It has a patina finish that makes it look like an original part of the architecture, but she bought it last November.

"It's cute up there," she says. "We were thinking about at Christmas time, we're going to put a Santa hat on it and some Christmas lights."

The Weems' gargoyles and the Taft gargoyle share the skyline with a few other creatures in St. Joseph, including perhaps the largest of them all: a 4 1/2-foot concrete gargoyle perched on the top of Cathedral Apartments. And like the others, it looks like it has been there from the start.

However, owner Dave Radner says it was specially ordered from a company in Florida when he purchased the property six years ago. Radner was inspired by a building in downtown Kansas City that had gargoyles on the roof that are close to 12 feet tall.

"I always thought that was super cool," he says. "Over the years, people took them off. A lot people thought they were evil, and actually, it's just the opposite."

Most of the gargoyles you find in St. Joseph are fairly new, but it wasn't always that way. Due to urban revitalization in the '60s and '70s, many buildings and their gargoyles were torn down, says Nigh Johnson, board member of St. Joseph Preservation Inc.

Some of the gargoyles on downtown buildings were removed for safety reasons, adds Ron Petersen, president of Preservation Inc. Others were sold when homes were torn down.

The Burns-Motter house in St. Joseph has decorative terra cotta figurines around an archway and a gargoyle on the side. Ellis Cross remembers at the age of 5 passing the home on the way to church and looking at the gargoyle.

"He was a water spout. When it was raining, it would spit water. It was absolutely wonderful," he says.

Ellis is doing his part to bring these guardian creatures back to the city and has put gargoyles on three of his apartment buildings.

And for those that want to get their own gargoyles, Ellis says there is one rule to remember: Don't get two alike.

"They have a tendency to breed and cause problems," he says, laughing. "That's why you never or shouldn't see two exactly alike."

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