Walkabout with Montrose: The Birds and the Beasts

Last week we looked at how 19th and early 20th century architects used the likenesses of lions, both natural and imaginary, as ornament in our Brooklyn buildings. This week, more images from the animal kingdom, and some of the symbolism that may be behind their use. If the lion is the King of Beasts, his closest rival to the throne would have to the eagle. The eagle is the symbol of America, and long before that, was a powerful symbol for Native American cultures, as well as European royal houses. It is natural, therefore, that we should find eagles on commercial buildings, such as banks, warehouses, office buildings and clubs. The finest example I have is the magnificent eagle carved in brownstone on the façade of the Union League Club, built for the Republican Party, at Grant Square, in Crown Heights North. The roof of the club also sports a bear, another symbol of strength, holding the shield of the Republic. Lesser birds were also popular, and many Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival homes throughout brownstone Brooklyn are adorned with sparrows, ravens, owls, and even herons.

Sometimes, the lines between reality and imagination blur, creating fantastic creatures that never actually existed, and those creatures are a wonderful delight to notice. Creatures I call “dragolions”: dragons with lion’s heads, and fantastic sea serpents, as well as true gryphons, with lion’s bodies and eagle’s heads. An Asian inspired dragon’s head appears on PS 138, also in Crown Heights, and a magnificent dragolion battles a serpent on the side of a house in Bed Stuy. Another animal with royal and ancient antecedents is the dolphin, which, from the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans has symbolized safety, charity, prosperity and traveling mercies. What more fitting symbol for a home, or hotel? Dolphins appear both large and small, usually depicted in the stylized manner of the Renaissance, looking more like catfish than literal dolphins, as depicted by Axel Hedman on a building of fine flats, overlooking Brower Park.

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