Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Five Explorer Questions With Terry Murray

 
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Terry Murray has a grotesque fascination with Toronto, and here at Open Book Explorer we think that makes for good sightseeing. In fact, we've dedicated one of our By The Book Tours to her book, Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto (House of Anansi).

Instead of delving into the depths of the city, Murray looks up - way, way up - to the roofs and arches of historic buildings to discover the narratives of gargoyles, cherubs, and caricatures and much more. Now she sits down with OBE to chat about her findings.

OBE:

What was the impetus for Faces on Placesand how did you begin piecing it together?

TM:

I first became interested in architectural detail in the mid-1990s when I read an article in the Chicago Tribune magazine about overlooked architectural gems in Chicago. I took the article as a challenge to find the same sort of detail in Toronto, a city not really known as the architectural wonder Chicago is. By about 2003, I figured if I could find enough stories behind the gargoyles and other largely humanoid sculptures I?d found on more than 60 buildings, I?d have a book.

OBE:

Did you uncover any history about Toronto buildings that surprised you?

TM:

True confession time: I grew up in Chicago. I came to Toronto as an adult, so almost everything I learned about Toronto buildings was news to me.

The entire history of Old City Hall surprised me ? that the city didn?t pay the full bill of architect E.J. Lennox and to get revenge he spelled out his name under the eaves and put caricatures of the city councilors at the entrance of the building, along with his own likeness; that the gargoyles from 1899 crumbled away from weather erosion, falling in chunks and nearly killing a few people, but were taken down as late as 1938; and that the city actually considered demolishing Old City Hall.

What also surprised me was how few people actually notice the faces until they?re pointed out, and how little is known about why they?re there. Case in point: There?s a sculpture of an apoplectic man shouting into an old-fashioned candlestick phone on Sterling Tower on Bay Street, but why? It wasn?t documented but I got a restoration architect to speculate.

OBE:

Of all the Faces on Places in Toronto, which one impresses you the most, or which had a story that stayed with you the longest?

TM:

Those would have to be the faces on the Staples Business Depot at Yonge and Marlborough which began life as the Pierce-Arrow Showroom and was later CBC-TV Studios. The figures there ? a kneeling naked man holding a strategically-placed car (the Pierce-Arrow, presumably), a family of griffins and an imp ? are probably the largest extant collection of the work of Merle Foster, a popular Toronto sculptor from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Almost no one remembers her now, little of her work survives because it was mostly commercial sculpture and she left no papers. But she was a household name during her heyday. Everything she did seemed to make the news. So I did a little digging ? okay, a lot of digging ? and am just about finished writing her biography.

OBE:

In your opinion, what compels architects to incorporate mythological and supernatural creatures on the exteriors of buildings?

TM:

The history of ornamenting buildings goes back to at least the ancient Greeks. Gargoyles are said to exist to protect buildings or, on old cathedrals, to terrify the faithful into adhering to the Ten Commandments. In some cases, architects have put their own faces on buildings ? there?s Lennox on Old City Hall, but 19th century Toronto architect William Thomas?s mug is on at least two buildings: St. Lawrence Hall and Oakham House at Ryerson University.

People love ornamenting. We love to decorate everything. This really came home to me when I started seeing the explosion in decorated cellphone covers.

OBE:

Have you discovered more interesting faces since the book has come out?

TM:

Oh yes? The very day Faces on Places came out, I found a sculpture of William of Orange on a building on College Street in Little Italy. I?ve continued looking, here in Toronto and anywhere else I go, and have found lots more that I?m posting on my blog at terrymurray.org. It?s an obsession.

Terry Murray is an award-winning journalist and photographer specializing in medicine. She is also an obsessive gargoyle hunter.

For more information about Faces on Places please visit the House of Anansi website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out more from our Five Explorer Questions series in our archives.

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