Angels in the Architecture: Gargoyles, Graveyard Statuary and Other Hidden Gems

“He looked around, round/ He saw angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity”
--Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”

I apologize, folks, because I’d inadvertently fibbed to you last week. I’d anticipated today’s post would be about the outdoor decorating swap I’m participating in. But there have been... ahem... technical difficulties... which have pushed things back a bit.

Oh, it’s all resolved now and will be sending the package off today. But this means I’ll have to share the results of it all with you next week. I mean, I COULD tell you now, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for the dear lady who’s receiving the package. ‘Nuff said.

So instead, I thought I’d share with you one of my weird little hobbies-- taking pictures of the art that surrounds us all the time, whether we discern it or not-- the sculpture found in local architecture and cemeteries.

I guess I started to become interested in architectural statuary about ten years ago during a five-day business trip to New Orleans. Most of the trip involved standing hours on end, manning a tradeshow booth. But in the time I was there, I had one glorious, booth-free day-- so my colleague and I decided to take a bus tour of the city. One of the stops was at one of New Orleans’ famous cemeteries. And there, I was surrounded by the most amazing sculptures of angels, gargoyles and other fantastic faces. There was not enough time to take all the photos I’d wished.

Once back in western PA, I couldn’t quite get the angels out of my system. There seemed to be all this remarkable artwork lurking where so few people saw it, and I became determined to capture a bit of it on film.

I suppose it might seem morbid, to actively wander through old cemeteries and narrow city streets searching for the expressions of history, myth and spirituality carved in rock or honed in metal. But it’s actually a very relaxing quest. It forces you to slow down, and really stop and see what’s around you every day-- to truly notice the eaves of a turn-of-the-century bank... The detail on a steeple.... The nuances in an old heavy door.

It’s why I particularly like that line from Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” I’d posted above. No matter what your belief system, it’s those little normally-overlooked details and surprises, like angels out of rock, that help keep life full of continued wonder.

Many of the photos here come from two cemeteries in the Squirrel Hill/Homewood area in Pittsburgh, though some are also from the rolling hills near Smicksburg, PA.

This is the statue a friend and I refer to as “The Black Angel.” She’s very hard to photograph due to the years of weathered patina.
This poor statue below has seen better days, yet still manages to strike a triumphant pose, even missing part of a limb...
I find it interesting how, depending on the time of day and the amount of sunlight, the statues seem to reflect a different mood. The sunshine of the day reflected an unexpected green and pinkish cast onto the face of this figure...

I’ve always liked how this figure’s placid face appears to look upward for answers. There’s a really nice sense of strength about the pose. He's a handsome fellow..

And the range of expressions among the figures is so broad. We can go from the sweet face of one statue...
To the frightening gaze of another...

And a visage that has been almost entirely worn away by time...

In the old historic banking district-- Second Avenue, in downtown Pittsburgh-- we see other faces peering down upon us. Not unexpectedly we discover the faces of the lion...

But we find some other beautiful and terrible friends silently begging for our attention...

What fierce face is this? A greenman? A satyr? A lion?

It’s a case of beauty and the beast, because see what has been carved on the building’s opposite wall?...

And even here on the Birmingham Bridge, we are being watched unaware, by steelworkers and miners in gargoyle form...

It really gets you thinking, doesn’t it? Looks like this lady certainly is taking a moment for reflection...

I hope you enjoyed this little journey today. See you next week!

Tales from Curbside Shoppers

Until recently, I never really thought of my projects as being “trash-to-treasure.”

Fact is, I have a great respect for “stuff” in general. (You cannot be a bit of a Victorian without “stuff.”) So the unleashing hidden potential in a chair or table...or finding a use for something no one else wanted... was pretty much the only way to HAVE anything decent. For me, it wasn’t part of any special trend, or movement. It was the decorating budget.

To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even been aware trash-to-treasure had a name-- and if anything, I’d considered it something better left undiscussed. Because it seemed-- in a fairly consumptive society where the newest video game system turns the old into rubbish the moment the marketing starts-- well, mentioning to a visitor that CHAIR they were sitting on had, last week, been resting on the side of the road with about three filled Hefty bags-- it really wasn’t the mark of good hostessing.

But then I learned I not only wasn’t alone, but we have not one name, but many. We’re “curbside shoppers.” We’re “dumpster divers.” We’re “trash-to-treasure artists.” In the UK, they tell me, we’re “skip robbers” (I rather like the adventurous sound of that! Has a good ‘Italian Job’ feel to it). And according to the hostess over at the Netherlands-based, Dutch garbage men call us “Morgensterns” or “Morning Stars.”

I think that’s my new favorite. Gotta love the positive spin on that one!

But the most interesting thing I’m learning about the trash-to-treasure phenomenon is these skip-robbers, these Morning Stars I’ve had the pleasure of meeting online, tend to be the most amazing, funny and creative people. People who really appreciate the value in an object. Who really understand what it is they have. And who, often, have a terrific sense of humor about the fact their hobby might not be embraced as warmly by the rest of the world. So today, I give you two reader trash-to-treasure stories, and a new tale of my own which I’ve discussed with a few of you personally, but thought I’d recount here today.

From Rhonda L. who was kind enough to let me publish her great story to share with you all:

“I was so excited to find, a couple of weeks ago, an entire Waterfall Bedroom Suite in the trash. My teenage daughter and four-year-old daughter share a bedroom. We had just cheap cardboard furniture in their room until a year ago. A friend of mine had a waterfall wardrobe that her boyfriend was going to use as firewood. Well, I saved that beautiful piece of furniture, and the same day I ran by my favorite antique mall and found matching twin beds (and on sale).

“Well, they really needed more dresser space (with girls having so many clothes). So I had been keeping an eye out for a great deal on another wardrobe or dresser. My oldest daughter has been wanting an vanity for her room, since everyone is always fighting over the bathroom. Well, I work the 2nd shift and was on my way home when there it was.... A beautiful vanity with this enormous and even more gorgeous mirror. I had a hard time getting the vanity in the car so I went home got my daughter and we somehow fit it in the back seat of my car...”

“The next morning I got my mother-in-law (from whom I learned the hunting free-stuff trade) came before the trash truck and we were able to save the wardrobe and the full-size head- and foot-boards. Which she was able to use for her bedroom and it went with her bedroom suite. (She promises me that I can have it back when I have the space.)..”

“The girls love that vanity and think they are princess now.”

I LOVE that the daughters don’t care one bit that the furniture came from the curb. I think those frugal little princesses have a fine future ahead of them!

And now from writer Molly Crane (And Molly, I’d tried to link to your web site, but I see it’s down. If you read this, please email me if it’s moved to a new location and I’ll add the link...I’ve been kind of concerned...)

Molly titles her story “Rich Man’s Trash”:

“A few weeks ago I was awakened by my friend at 6 a.m. Saturday morning! She said to me, ‘Let’s go treasure hunting!’... “

“I said to her: ‘Girl, what are you talking about?’...

“She proceeded to tell me she needed some ‘new’ things for her recently-purchased Atlanta condo and she was going ‘dumpster diving.’ Immediately I thought the girl had had too many drinks the night before!...

“’How can you get 'new' stuff from dumpster diving?’ I asked her...

“She told me to wait and see! So we headed out around 6:30 that morning. We went to several, and I mean SEVERAL, affluent Atlanta suburbs: Buckhead, Alpharetta, and SmokeRise alike...

“We filled the truck with beautiful rich man's trash. We stopped at this one house where the owners had tossed this heavy SHINY mahogany table. Why? Because it had a huge ugly scratch going down the middle of it! We acquired that and paid a refinisher $50.00 to refinish it. We had it appraised and it was worth over $1,500.00 before it was scratched, but was still worth only a mere $750.00 now...

“Wow! Unbelievable.

“I picked up some tarnished stainless steel serving spoons and a tarnished serving platter as well. The next time I have a nice social gathering, I will definitely break out the Rich Man's Trash that I found and ‘repurchased’ for free!...

“Now I know where I am going to do my shopping from now on. “

Thanks again, Molly, for taking the time to tell us your story!

And MY tale? My tale is a lesson in better planning.

On bulk trash day in my neighborhood, I was headed to work a bit early. Dressed in business attire in plans for a later meeting, I lost all of my professionalism the moment I saw the white chairback peeping out of the trash of a neighbor about a block down the road from me.

I looked in the rear-view-- no one behind me-- threw the car into park and leapt out.

Er, NO, actually I threw the car into park, still running, and... um, you know how cars have automatic child safety locks?

Yes, that’s right-- I couldn’t get OUT.

So I fumbled with the locks, and then realized I was also BUCKLED in, and THEN leapt out of the car....

So much for the sophistication of ‘The Italian Job.’

I seized the chair and running back to my car, realized my second logistical error. The remote for the trunk and the back doors was on the keychain with the car key on it. Which was in the ignition.

(Growl, grumble...)

So there I was, in nice work clothes, my hair done up, and wearing vintage jewelry, trying to cram this dirty trashed chair into the back from over the driver’s seat. Quickly.

I have no idea if my neighbors spotted me, but my triumph over the chair has been enough to soothe some of those concerns.

I’ve been told recently, by some of my fellow rubbish fans, that I need no fear when I do these capers-- that if people don’t like it, it’s just too bad...

Others have suggested I employ disguises.

And while I appreciate the well-meaning advice, somehow, I think seeing a gal with bright red hair and, say, a Groucho Marx nose and glasses come flying out of the car, grabbing furniture and zooming away, isn’t necessarily going to be LESS memorable, in terms of techniques.

I figure if anyone questions it, I’ll simply invite them to see my finished chairs. This last chair is still waiting for its new look. So for a while at least, its story continues.

Have a wonderful week, everyone! Next week, join me for the results of a recent outdoor cottage decorating swap!

The Big Picture: Mini House Tour

Typically here at The Thrift Shop Romantic, we talk about a specific decorating item, or project, so we focus on the details. But it had occurred to me that there were a few rooms in Waterhouse that you folks had never really gotten to see.

So that’s why I’ve scheduled this mini-house tour.

And admittedly, it IS a mini-house.

Yes, indeedy, I do live in a Victorian, but you’ll want to wipe from your mind any preconceived notions that it’s some rambling genteel estate, or elaborate vision out of The Haunting. Waterhouse is a modest little Victorian-- Victorian Lite, if you will.

This has presented its own challenges to decorating. It means I rely on a lot of wall shelving and clever corner cabinets to display my collections.

It also means that my love of art sometimes tends to exceed my wall space.
So-- got your comfy shoes on? Then here we go.

You’ve seen this entryway before no doubt. Yup, this is the one I’d just painted in a flurry of activity during Whirlwind DIY week. So let’s just go to the right and pop into the dining room.

I’ve shown you a number of table and mantle displays in this room over the years. But I thought I’d show you some corners of the room you normally don’t get to see.

Like the one with my beloved fainting sofa. This lovely lady is no antique-- I got her from the clearance center of Levin Furniture. And though I don’t have space for both a dining room and a parlor, I think the piece works pretty well here under the picture window.

Oh, and see that? That’s where one of the recently thrifted paintings now lives.

Here are a few more corners you may not have seen.

And this, this is a bit of an embarrassment to me, but hey-- I try to be up-front about these things.

This was a built-in cabinet at one time and I found it in my basement, freestanding. I need to fix this, and have needed to do so for a really long time. I’ve tried to add trim, and plan to add legs to make this more moveable and useful. Admittedly, right now it’s a bit of an eyesore. It’s on my to-do list of projects for this year. Currently, I store china and linens in it.

Let’s head into the living room. This is a bit of a deviation from some of my other rooms, but I’m happy to have an appropriate home for that enormous Edwin Austin Abbey print of Richard III. You can also see where the Mille-Fleurs TV armoire lives.

I’ve tried to stick with a medieval/William Morris tapestry feel in this room.

Okay, in the interest of keeping the file size of this page to a minimum, I’m not going to take you into the kitchen from here. If you’d like to see the kitchen, you can always click here to see the feature on my kitchen cabinets.

Let’s head on up to the second floor.

Here on the stairway are some of my relatives-- heya, Great-Grandpa, how’s it goin’?--

...And most of my art deco prints. I’ve grouped them gallery-style so I could take advantage of the limited space I have. I know some folks would regard this as clutter. But I think they all work pretty well together.

Now on to the guest room.

I think you all have seen bits and pieces of this room through various other features, but here are just a few quick snaps. This and my kitchen are my most cottagey-Shabby Chic rooms.

And now onto my room.

Guests visiting are usually a little opened-mouthed about this room-- probably because there’s so much color and so much darned stuff going on in it. Frankly, it’s a joy for me to be in here.

It’s a little bit of Eastern India, a little gothic, a little Victorian, and pretty much mixes art deco and art nouveau together, no holds barred. But somehow I think it works.

Growing up I’d always wanted a posterbed, and now I’m lucky enough to have this wrought iron one which I’ve covered in curtains and sari fabrics, fastened in place by vintage pins.

Well, that’s pretty much the whole of Waterhouse, without taking you through my housemate’s territory, which out of respect for the renting, is not on this tour. You can, however, click here to see the bathroom if you haven’t seen that page before.

Or, for something completely different, you can follow me to the second feature for this week, where thrift goes to Antiques Roadshow. Click here.