Throughout the Danforth Campus of Washington University in St. Louis are odd-looking creations and shapes that perch on cornices, crouch above portals and glare from the darkened recesses of the university’s Gothic archways.

Imitating distorted, fantastic human and animal forms, these sculptures are called bosses or grotesques. They evolved from Gothic gargoyles — ornamental waterspouts that channel rain water off and away from buildings. Because none of the university’s sculptures are designed as rain spouts, they technically cannot be called gargoyles, although the term is often used today.

Centuries ago, these forms may originally have portrayed the triumph of the Roman Catholic church over evil spirits that are now frozen in stone, while others claim the gargoyles are guardians of the buildings they inhabit. The rebirth of the Gothic style in the Renaissance brought to light the decorative qualities of gargoyles. Their rain-channeling purpose was abandoned, giving rise to grotesques and bosses — gargoyles with a purely ornamental purpose.

Collegiate Gothic

Washington University’s first grotesques and bosses were the creations of the Philadelphia architects Walter Cope and John Stewardson – the firm selected in 1899 to design the Danforth Campus. Emulating the Gothic-styled English universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the firm sought to “express the continuity of Western civilization.” Running the gamut of Gothic revival — from early Tudor to post-Jacobean — the firm’s synthesis of the various styles has become known as Collegiate Gothic.

In 1902, Cope explained his use of the Gothic style to the university trustees. “Broadly speaking, the architecture of today may be divided into two styles: the Gothic and the Classic…. To the beholder the Classic says this is the sum — here is perfection — do not aspire further. The Gothic says to him: reach higher — spread outward and upward — there are no limitations.”

By ornamenting sparingly, James P. Jamieson, the firm’s head draftsman (who later was to become the head of a successor firm that designed several more Danforth Campus buildings), provided the campus with a modern appearance while giving the buildings iconographic distinctions.

Jamieson included traditional medieval grotesques, such as beaked heads, horrific creatures, mermaids and mermen, as well as a “visible record” of college life, with sculptures of students quaffing beer, owls studying Latin texts and astute professors lecturing. While many of the grotesques appear on older buildings, some newer structures like the law school’s Anheuser-Busch Hall also are adorned with them. The Hammond Collection, housed at University Archives at the West Campus, contains 156 original pencil sketches of early Danforth Campus grotesques that were crafted in both stone and wood.

* Based on an article in the Washington University Magazine by Paul Nagle, a 1993 Olin Business School graduate