Working Gargoyles

Photos from 2004 and 2019.

A distress call went out over the interwebz, from an old historic church having problems with roof drainage. Trinity Episcopal Church at Trumbull & Martin Luther King Blvd. in Detroit has been the home of the Spirit of Hope congregation for many years, but as usual with these old churches the maintenance becomes too much for the cash-strapped faithful to bear.


So when my significant other told me that they were looking for someone to go up on the roof and clear the debris out of the gargoyles so that the snowmelt wouldn't seep through the roof with the coming snowstorm that weekend, I didn't think twice. Help out some people in need, plus help protect historic architecture, plus get to climb all over one of my favorite churches? Sign me the hell up. I opted to refuse payment for the job and merely donate my time.


The thing that made this difficult was that the heavy snowfall was due in two days, so I had to move fast and put aside my normally busy schedule to come straight from work and get as much done as possible before the winter sun went down by 6pm. Worse yet it had already been bitter cold for awhile (around 15F), which meant that I would have to work in bulky winter clothing, and painstakingly chip through a lot of frozen mud.


In case you don't know what a gargoyle is, they are more than just creepy stone carvings—they serve as roof drains, funneling water off of the building. Apparently the ones on this church had become plugged up, and water damage was occurring inside the building after heavy snows. They have also been said to be for "scaring away" evil spirits from the holy ground of the church, hence the grotesque faces.


For full disclosure I am not a religious person; I was raised Catholic and after my confirmation I promptly went agnostic (big surprise), but I do still love church buildings and doing what I can to help support them, such as attending their fish fries and ethnic festivals.


I had never quite done anything like clean a gargoyle before, since there aren't too many opportunities to even get that kind of experience in America, where the number of churches with actual functioning gargoyles can be counted on fingers. But here in Detroit we have this one! In fact I have long admired the hell out of this church as one of my absolute favorites because of its extraordinarily authentic traditional architecture.


I did however have experience doing an extensive gutter-cleaning job once on several massive multi-unit condo buildings in Dearborn, where I accessed 90% of the work from the roof, and again it was in winter after the leaves and crap had already frozen into the gutters and spouts. So how much different could gargoyles be, except for the fact that now I would be striving to avoid damaging a national architectural treasure.


I realized that in any other city this is a job that would probably be done by a team of licensed, bonded, insured, and trained contractors with specialized tools and hydraulic lifts, might last over the course of a week, and would cost like $100,000....but this is Detroit, and we do what we can.


So I took a preliminary look at the church's roof via Google Maps aerial imagery, gathered up my spade, hammer, crowbar, broom, hardhat, some rope, a flashlight, and extension ladders, lashed it all to my truck and rolled up Trumbull Avenue. This reminded me of that movie Session 9, where the asbestos removal contractor had like a week to abate that whole asylum...except I only had two days. I was already sore from working all day at my regular job, and now I was going to be even sorer.


I met Kate, the lady in charge, and she showed me the way in. She is well known in Detroit as one of the more prominent urban farmers, but I quickly surmised that her farm existed to supply much of the food that was served to the needy here at this church.


On this first day it was already nearly dark by the time I started, but I knew I had to at least get a full overview of the several different roofs and how to best access them, figure out which gargoyles needed the most attention, and what would be a good way to clear them without causing any damage. The higher roofs would most likely be accessed through the tower, but the lower ones were easier to get with a ladder.


By placing my ladder up between the crenellations of the parapet I sort of felt like I was participating in a medieval siege. Along the way up I finally got an up-close look at some of the strange sculpted faces that I had so-long admired from the street...these lower-level ones were piped into gutters to keep their spray from going everywhere, but clearly they were suffering from deferred maintenance:


I noticed that except for the south side there were no trees anywhere around the building, so I wondered what could even be clogging up the gargoyles. Sediment from asphalt shingles?


In any case I took my first look at a small roof closest to the trees next-door. Sure enough it was roofed with asphalt, and there was a bunch of mud and leaves up there settled into the trough at the low end of the roof. And it was frozen as hard as stone. In one corner there was a small bush beginning to take root, so I started by yanking it out (seen below, at left). It just so happened to be conveniently situated right over the drain hole for the gargoyle, making it easy to locate and clean out, but the amount of frozen sediment everywhere else would present a problem if it was the same situation on all the other roofs too.


According to Newton for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action, so I couldn't just start prying up on this frozen junk with my shovel or crowbar, since that would also create a "prying down" effect on the soft roof that could puncture the tar or shingle covering and make things even worse. So lightly chipping away from the sides was the only way to go, until I could get a big chunk to come loose. This was very time consuming and very tiring.


Pretty quickly I realized that in light of time constraints I would have to prioritize my work in order to make sure the most critical areas got done before the 6 inches of snow started, 24 hours from now. It was already starting to get dark.


The next photo shows what it looked like after I had cleared away the sediment from the corner where the gargoyle was...the small depression in the corner serves as the low spot for the water to run to, and there is a small square hole about 2" or 3" wide that is the opening to the actual gargoyle below. I used the shovel and broom to clear away the bulk of the dirt, and then gently bored my crowbar into the hole once it had been located, in order to break up the clog. I used my fingers to pull material out until it was through.


It might've been easier to do this with a hose, but not in subfreezing weather, and it would have to be an awfully long hose, since there aren't exactly many spigots up here on the roof...Kate suggested pouring hot water to loosen the frozen dirt, but that too would have been logistically challenging and even more time consuming.


Experimenting with a second ladder, I got to a higher level. The gargoyle you see in that photo above was actually free of debris, much to my satisfaction. 


That house seen above is the Crow Manor, home to a collective of artists, musicians, and activists, which also puts on the annual "Crownival"...you might think of it as a surrogate for the now-defunct 4th Street Fair.


Admittedly it was a little hard to concentrate on work while all this architectural beauty around me just begged to be photographed...


The sun was already setting, so I decided to move around a bit and figure out where other roof-access points might be, and to size up the job for tomorrow. It soon became evident that the church had a metal roof installed some time ago, but I noticed some sections where it had already been replaced with asphalt shingle roofing, a much more affordable alternative. Generally the trough along the lower edge where the gargoyles were located was tarred.


I had not yet figured out how to access the upper-level roofs, but I strongly suspected that there would be access hatches from the tower. I don't think Kate was too excited about the tower, since she hinted that the extremely narrow (and extremely long) spiral staircase made her dizzy. Nonetheless, that's where I knew I would have to go tomorrow. 


There was another roof hatch here on the parish house / gymnasium addition, but it didn't really give me access to anything I didn't already have access to.


According to their website, the Spirit of Hope congregation is a mix of people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages and backgrounds, in a low-income community. Aside from worship, the church provides meals to 600 people per week, substance abuse recovery programs, urban farming, warm clothing, HIV testing, and serves as the community center for the area. It also houses a Head Start early childhood center, and the church's playground and park are "known throughout the neighborhood."

The recent book Detroit's Historic Places of Worship calls Spirit of Hope a "hive of everyday activity" due to its many different programs and services, speculating that it probably sees "more use now than when it was a domain for Detroit's elite." I would say however that Trinity probably became a working class congregation by the 1930s, and has remained so for the rest of its history.


As darkness fell, I heard Kate's voice coming from down below, asking if I was still okay up there. I began putting my tools away and she invited me inside for tea and to warm up. She made a pot of chaga tea, which comes from boiling a rare type of hard mushroom found on certain trees. Aside from tasting pretty good it has lots of health benefits, she informed me. I filled her in on my progress up top while my fingers thawed out around the warm mug, before heading home to get some rest. When I arrived home my girl was somewhat impressed to see that I had suddenly become so worldly in the ways of exotic teas.

*          *          *

The next day I managed to get a much earlier start, and I had more of a plan in my head.


This church was designed by prominent local architects George Mason and Zachariah Rice, as a perfect replica of late-14th century southern-English Gothic church design. It was built from 1890 to 1892 and entirely financed by James E. Scripps, who is best known as the founder of the Detroit News. He was also one of the primary founding benefactors of what eventually became the Detroit Institute of Arts, through donations of both money and of fine art, elevating Detroit's art collection to worldwide significance.

According to the American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, this building "marked a turning point in American church design." Full stop.

For decades we Americans had "indulged fanciful notions" of medieval architecture when building our "quaint" versions of Europe's historic churches, but this represented a turn to the authentic—the scholarly, even. This wasn't "McMedieval" architecture, it WAS medieval architecture, down to every last hand-chiseled stone that was piled up to make the thing. Gordon Bugbee, once a member of the church, claimed that it was the first example of late Gothic Revival by an American architect—quite a claim to fame, if true. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Scripps was of English ancestry and a trip to England in the 1880s not only sparked his interest in this style of architecture, but inspired him to build a replica of it. According to the book The Buildings of Detroit, in a chapter entitled "The Lure of the Middle Ages," Detroit architectural historian W. Hawkins Ferry explains how Scripps had his guiding hand on every aspect of the design and construction of this church, as well as financing the entire project.


I continued my walk around the entire roof to see if there were any potential trouble spots I might have missed on my initial inspection yesterday. Looking up, this round turret actually houses the spiral staircase to the bell tower (the chimney is seen at left):


This closed-mouthed guy seen below is actually not a gargoyle...it is only a true gargoyle if it spouts water—everything else is properly called a "grotesque," which are much more common than gargoyles.


Scripps "deplored the prevailing level of Victorian taste" in the 1880s, and hired an English architect to visit churches in his area and make careful drawings and measurements of their details, which were finally forwarded to Mason & Rice for their design. Every detail of this church was taken from some other medieval church or ruin in England. Even the tracery in the lancet windows was "archaeologically correct," according to Ferry, and Scripps spared not one single penny in the meticulous execution of this church. According to the book Buildings of Michigan, by Kathryn Eckert, its design followed ecclesiological doctrine all the way down to the placement of the pulpit, choir, and reading desk.

George Mason was already familiar with English Gothic style firsthand from his own travels, and employed it again when he designed the Detroit Masonic Temple several years later.


Like this church, James Scripps' own Tudor-style mansion was a bit of a medieval castle, too (built 1891, also by Mason & Rice), and it bore the same crenellated parapet ("battlements," for the layman) as that found on the church. It was "a visible protest against the vagaries of the Victorian domicile," as Ferry put it. I can only imagine what Scripps thought of the floridly Victorian Venetian-Gothic style Trumbull Presbyterian Church built across the street from his house in 1887...!

You can see it behind the white building in this next photo:


I picked up my work here, near where I had left off yesterday:


Plastic shopping bags—also known as "urban tumbleweeds" and other airborne litter such as Snickers wrappers or Taco Bell napkins had blown in on the wind and collected here with pigeon droppings to form a wonderful melange of frozen, half-rotted bull@#$%...


I also found a football, and a couple cheap liquor bottles tossed up here. For comparison, the next photo shows what the topside of a gargoyle looks like when it's clean—the hole is square, and surprisingly only about two or three inches wide:


The three remaining towers of the Jeffries Housing Project are seen in the next photo:


The walls of Trinity Episcopal are two feet of solid Trenton limestone blocks without any wooden or steel framing; they are held up by the functional stone buttresses around the perimeter, and held together by gravity and the ancient principles of masonry. The stone was quarried from the old Sibley Quarry in the modern-day suburb of Trenton, the same quarry that supplied the stone for many other early Detroit buildings over the centuries, including some of its old forts.


The detail components were mostly carved of sandstone.


Looking at a gargoyle from above, you can see that it is essentially just a chute, with a lining made of thin lead sheetmetal to keep it from eroding or forming moss on the soft stone.


You can see it even better in here.


The Trumbull entrance to the church features two notable carvings, seen in the next photo. On the left is King Richard II, who ruled England from 1377 to 1399, when this type of architecture was in fashion.

The other carving is the face of John Wycliffe, a dissident Catholic theologian and philosopher who lived during the same period. Wycliffe is credited with promoting the first English translation of the Bible, and he espoused many critical views of the Catholic church that are credited with leading up to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. It was out of the Reformation that the Episcopal Church was born, when supremacy of the King of England was established over the church and the authority of the Pope was repudiated, according to episcopalchurch.org.


Although this church was built in 1890, the history of its congregation began in 1878 when a group of Anglicans staged their own mini-Reformation, choosing not to pledge themselves to the Episcopalian bishop of Michigan, according to Dr. Ren Farley. They called themselves Epiphany Reformed Episcopal, and in 1880 they built their small wooden-frame church on the spot where the c.1925 parish house stands today.


It was during the 1880s that James Scripps began attending the church. Back then Martin Luther King Blvd. was called Myrtle Street, and I don't think it was nearly as wide. The church changed their name to Trinity Episcopal in 1889. Eventually the Scripps family intermarried with the Booth family, and together they were greatly responsible for building up this area at the corner of Grand River and Trumbull. The Scripps-Booths later moved to Oakland County and had a guiding hand in building the world-renowned Cranbrook, as well as spurring the Arts & Crafts movement in Detroit.


Well, it was time to head up into the tower.


Holy crap, this stairway was the real deal!


The tower stairs are another unique feature of the building, which to my surprise were built completely of hand-carved stone slabs laid in a helical pattern, exactly as it was done in medieval days. I honestly can't say I've seen hand-wrought monolithic architecture of this caliber anywhere in Detroit except in the casemates and underpinnings of Fort Wayne, which dates to the 1840s.

Not far up the stairs, I came across a teensy-tiny quatrefoil window, maybe about 6 inches across, which apparently looked out into the actual sanctuary of the church...it was very dark in there, but I could see a window across on the other side:


Just a little ways past that a narrow door opened into a small room, with a stone fireplace in the corner:


There wasn't much in there, just a small musty old room that seemed like it had once been a living quarters for the sexton (church caretaker) or maybe a live-in carillon player. Or maybe it was where the guy in charge of cleaning the gargoyles used to live...? I continued ahead up the stairs.


Here was the level that I would be working on...a small door led outside through each of the four walls of the tower for access to the church's upper roofs. The dome-shaped floor was actually the top of the vaulted ceiling over the cross of the nave and the transept of the church, and the hatch in the middle gave access to the giant light fixture that hung from it:


My guide cautioned me not to walk on the dome, but in all honesty, because of what it is, I would think it ought to be strong enough to hold up a stack of Buicks. This was not like the domes in the lobby of Michigan Central, this was solid stone.

Holy $#@%, look at the size of these timbers!


I think these were about 12"x12" of pure old-growth Michigan pine, harvested from the virgin forests during the height of the fabled logging days. There was some serious lumber in this building...these trees may have been growing in the 1400s when medieval churches like this were being built over in England! To give you some perspective on how long ago that was, people still believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe when churches like this were being built...

Also accessible from this level of the tower were little cubby-holes that opened into the narrow attic spaces above the church ceiling, where more massive timber framing was evident:


Judging by the relatively new condition of these beams however, it looked as though the roof had undergone extensive repair or replacement at some point in the recent past.

I decided that before I began work, I would give in to temptation and make a quick trip up to the top of the tower for some photos before it got too dark.


Narrow slit windows appeared halfway up the tower, overlooking the neighborhood. This was really tough climbing in this tight space with all these tools and my big puffy winter coat...pretty soon I was sweating and feeling a little claustrophobic.


The next level was where the carillon was housed, in other words, this is the device that was used to ring the bells in the belfry above:


Again, I was awed by the massive timber framing of this structure, but keep in mind that it is only there to provide flooring and support for the weight of the bells; the walls themselves are solid stone and independent of structural framing.


Kate specifically asked me not to mess with ringing the bells, so I left it alone. I guess some other visitors in the past must have broken something. Anyway, back to these stairs...


There were occasional working lights in here. I imagine the sexton would've had to carry a candle with him up here before the days of electricity. This was the door to the belfry:


Wow, there were more bells in here than I expected:


There were still a lot more of those damned stairs to climb before I got to the actual top of the tower. When I breathlessly reached the end I felt pretty accomplished, but I was surprised to find an unfamiliar name carved here in the dark at the terminus of the stair:


It actually looks like the stone carver was about to engrave a whole list of peoples' names here, but for some reason he stopped after one and a half...?


Did he suffer a fatal heart attack, like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I wonder if this church has a grail-shaped beacon on top of its roof?


No, but more grotesques, yes!


This now reminded me a lot of the tower of Edison High School in Philadelphia, which I explored with some Philly colleagues years back.


There was quite a view up here, but it seemed flat and dull in this grim January weather. Here is a look to the northeast, with the Fisher Building in view to the left:


I always loved how the sandstone parts of the church had stained black from the old Victorian days of coal soot covering the city, to sharply contrast with the lighter gray limestone.


Looking southwest, the neighborhood in this direction was always a little more working class than the Woodbridge neighborhood on the side of the street where Mr. Scripps' residence was:


Here you can see a view across Trumbull towards downtown, and the vacant lot where the ruins of the Arctic Ice Cream Co. had recently been demolished, which I explored in an older post:


The intersection of Trumbull, Grand River Avenue, and MLK Boulevard:


Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian, and the former site of Mr. Scripps' mansion:


Here is the tower stairs again, with the Michigan Central train station in the distance:


In the early 2000s I had the idea to do a photography book on gargoyles and other carved architectural creatures in Detroit (sort of like the more well-known book that was done for NYC gargoyles in 1988 by Steven King and F-stop Fitzgerald). I started taking photos on 35mm (including a few of the ones you see featured in this post), but due to the other projects I had going I never got much further on the idea other than that and some location scouting. Well apparently someone else is finally doing it—the new book Guardians of Detroit is due out in March on Wayne State University Press. It looks good...apparently 330 pages and 770 photographs worth.


Well, it was time to get back down to business again, and back down to the roofs.


Stepping out of the tower door onto the roof over the western transept, I could overlook the courtyard and the parish house:


I could see the west-facing gargoyles of the upper roof, and Scripps Park in the distance:


This was also where I found quite a bit of work waiting for me...!


There was quite a bit of ice up on this one, and it went all the way through the gargoyle:


I sensed there was quite a bit of liquid water underneath, which would make it difficult to find the hole to unclog, but figured I would slowly chip away at it and see what happened. I began chiseling in the corner where I thought the drain hole would be, so I could stab my crowbar in and feel around under the water. This took a good 15 minutes. Again, I also had to be careful not to damage the lead lining of the gargoyle.


To my surprise, I found the hole pretty easily once I got through the ice, and worked the crowbar into it...


Suddenly there was a large bubble and deep gurgling noises, followed by a deluge of about 30 gallons of brown funkwater bursting free and flushing out of (and over top of) the gargoyle below! I stood there in surprise for several seconds before my numbed fingers could get my camera to record a video of this...


As you can probably see, the snow was already starting to fall by this point, reminding me that I was up against my time limit. Night was beginning to fall as well.


James Scripps made his fortune when he started publishing the Detroit News back in 1873. Back then it was called the Detroit Evening News, and he targeted it toward the rapidly growing number of blue-collar workers in Detroit—something that had never been done before, according to Ren Farley. Before this, newspapers in Detroit were generally geared to be the mouthpiece of one particular political party or another, and they contained plenty of blustery high-brow discourse, but the Detroit Evening News was designed to be practical. As a result it proved to be wildly popular.

So you might say that James Scripps was to the newspaper what Henry Ford was to the automobile; he simplified it for mass consumption. Both men made a wager on the working class, they were both criticized for catering to the common man—and they both became millionaires in spite of their detractors. Something something, Detroit.


Finally, access to the big roof over the nave. I walked the perimeter and was relieved to find that there were no obstructed gargoyles on this roof, and very little residue up here at all, thanks to the fact that it was still an all-metal roof and there were no trees nearby. I wonder if this church originally had a slate roof, or whether it was lead?


Such a cool view! I was super-psyched to be up here.


To cross over to the other side, I had to walk up and over the peak of the roof. I was impressed to see that there were old wrought-iron handholds fixed into the stone for this very purpose, helping workmen traverse the roof safely. You can see some of them in my earlier photos near the base of the smokestack. I thought about how many other old-time workmen had been up here to do roof maintenance...I was but another in a long line of grunts who put their sweat into the upkeep of this landmark.

Here is a view west, down Martin Luther King Boulevard:


Snow begins to coat the parapet...


Does anyone else hear the theme-song to that damn Downton Abbey show playing in their head?


The windows in the tower were leaded glass, and also in need of some help. Luckily they were protected by screens:


The steady chipping away at this debris got me working up a bit of a sweat despite the subfreezing temperatures. I had to shed my coat in order to keep working.


Streetlights started coming on, and rush hour traffic began to build. I already spotted a few salt trucks on the road. It was definitely snowing now, but I was almost done.


Dr. Farley explains how this church went from being Trinity Episcopal to Spirit of Life. In 1956, Faith Memorial Lutheran Church was built at Trumbull and Alexandrine to serve the residents of the nearby Jeffries Housing Project, whose tall towers you saw in some of my earlier photos. When the projects were depopulating in the 1990s, Faith Memorial began eying a merger with Trinity Episcopal.

The two churches combined here in 2006, and they changed their name to Spirit of Life Church, under the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and the Southeast Michigan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. So I guess they are a binary Episcopalian-Lutheran congregation. It is actually a rare church in Detroit that has not already merged with other struggling (or demolished) churches to survive. Depopulation is a doozy.


At long last ready to consider my job complete, I wearily descended the tower steps with all my tools to find that everyone from the food pantry had gone home for the night and it was just Kate and I left in the building. This time I was treated to some hot soup when I reached the kitchen in the basement. After warming up and taking off my coat I decided it would be only proper to go get some photos of the church's sanctuary, which I had always wanted to see the inside of.


Kate flipped on the lights for me and I took a few shots. Sadly I had to settle for dark nighttime stained glass windows instead of vibrant daytime stained glass windows, but something about a church at night is still very visually enchanting. I promised to come back on another day to see the windows in the sunlight, but I haven't had time.

She pointed out that this stained glass window in the north/east aisle was a was a legit Tiffany Glass window, one of the few in Detroit:


The corresponding window in the south/west aisle depicting Christ as the Good Shepard was also done by by Tiffany. Only ten other structures in Detroit have Tiffany windows, according to the book Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit.

The chancel window shows the baptism of Christ, and it was done by the Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany. The other notable windows were made by the Willet Studios of Pittsburgh, including the "Apocalypse Window," which took 20 years to finish because the drawing for it was lost until the sexton discovered it stuffed behind a radiator. It was finally completed in the 1960s.


The organ is a 1,200 pipe tracker-action, according to Farley built by the Jardine Company of New York. If you look up near the ceiling in the upper left corner above the organ, you can see some of the water damage that was being caused by the clogged gargoyles.


And no, the organ doesn't currently work.


Unless of course someone were to come along and dump a few million dollars on a restoration, heh.


This is the ceiling beneath the tower (which I was practically standing on top of earlier), and it is completely constructed of stone—thought to be the first genuine stone-groined vaulted ceiling built in the United States:


Again, this is all totally legit medieval architecture here, no half-assery or scagliola. Kate sat in the pews while I meandered around and snapped photos, carrying on our conversation. We pontificated on the fact that all this fine art and meticulous high-brow design may have been dreamt up and paid for by rich aesthetes like Scripps, but when it comes to actually physically building these beautiful architectural wonders, that task falls to the humble working man—and it was the same in the 1890s when this church was built as it was in the 1400s when the medieval churches it was modeled after were built.


Despite our supposedly simple, uncultured minds, the common man often has just as much appreciation and connection to these old landmarks as any art snob who might visit, since it was our forefathers whose hands actually chiseled this stone, carved this wood, dug this foundation, and hung these windows. We deserve this space just as much as anyone else.



References:
The Buildings of Detroit, A History, by W. Hawkins Ferry
The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric J. Hill, John Gallagher, p. 138
Buildings of Michigan, by Kathryn B. Eckert, p. 82
Detroit's Historic Places of Worship, edited by Marla O. Collum, Barbara E. Krueger, Dorothy Kostuch, p. 104-109
Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, by Nola Huse Tutag, Lucy Hamilton, p. 117-118, 152
http://detroit1701.org/Trinity%20Episcopal.html#.XFb1cRiZO3U
http://sohdetroit.org
https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wycliffe
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-II-king-of-England
https://www.episcopalchurch.org/history-episcopal-church