South High School, Denver

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Toronto’s Bishop Strachan High School is not alone in not knowing why there are certain sculptures (in this case, chimps) on its building. As I discovered in researching the stories behind many of Toronto’s architectural faces, that information is lost for a lot of buildings – but I was left with no doubt that architects and stone carvers had specific people or ideas in mind when they created those faces.

One school that has an elaborate sculpture programme and has kept the stories behind it alive in its yearbooks and on its website is South High School in Denver. My friend Kathy Lingo, one of the principals in Avenue L Architects, took me on a tour of the school (designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992) when I visited Denver a few years ago. CORRECTION: Kathy Lingo has informed me that contrary to its claim, South H.S. is not a National Historic Landmark and not listed on the National Register. It is, however, a Denver Historic Landmark. (Thanks, Kathy!)

The Romanesque building, designed by the architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher (actually a whole family of architects, which you can read about in this PDF), was completed in 1924. The Fishers, originally Canadian, became a force in Denver architecture.

Apparently, Arthur A. Fisher was a proponent of using painting and sculpture in Denver public buildings, and influenced the use of the sculptures adorning South High.

The most prominent exterior sculpture is the slightly more than one metre tall gargoyle on the roof, the “symbolic protector of South,” according to the school’s website. Created by sculptor Robert Garrison, it is said to have been inspired by one on Italy’s Spoleto Cathedral.

Striped poles flank the front entrance. They are topped by figures said to be faculty members holding creatures representing final exams. The creatures seem ready to devour students whose heads are on piles of books in front of them (see right).

One of two friezes above the main door (pictured below) is known as “Faculty Row,” and shows the principal in the centre of a line of the entire faculty. To his right is the assistant principal; on his left is the dean of girls (no longer a position at South). The second frieze, called “Animal Spirits” and not shown here, has figures the symbolize unscholarly behaviour such as rubber-band shooting and gum chewing. (To think that those were the big behaviour problems in classrooms as recently as 10 years ago; now it’s students using cell phones and iPods in class.)

Above another door is a frieze showing children going to school – some eagerly, others less so. The less enthusiastic children tend to be toward the back of the line, like this one seen here in close-up:

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