Gods and Monsters

Terry Murray surfed webs both modern and old to tell the grotesque story of Toronto.

Christmas, 2006 / No. 17
Photograph by Terry Murray
Terry Murray

Head above the Don Jail’s main door.

The researching of history has been turned on its ear by the Internet. By surfing the Web, Terry Murray found a motherlode of material about Toronto sculptures for Faces on Places, her recently published book of photos and stories about the gargoyles and grotesques watching over Toronto’s streets from high architectural perches. More than seventy-five newspaper articles, for instance, turned up about Merle Foster, a once-famous sculptor, on Pages of the Past, the searchable archive of the Toronto Star. Many of the buildings where these stone-faced griffins and goddesses, angels and dragons hang around are listed on Archidont, the Toronto Public Library’s inventory of Ontario buildings. And, of course, Murray relied on Canada411; few remember how hard it was to search for people when you had to go to the library and browse out-of-town telephone books.

But the World Wide Web can only drill down so far. In early 2003, Murray heard contractors would be installing new gargoyles on Old City Hall, replacements for the originals, lost to gravity and worry decades ago. “I gave them a call and said, ‘Can I come up and have a look? ’” Murray recalls. Swapping her hat as a writer and editor for the Medical Post (her day job) for a hard hat, up she climbed one February day “on the scaffolding,” virtually—no, actually—face to face with her grimacing subjects. A close-up photo she took for Faces on Places, a view few will ever have, shows the lion-like head of a winged beast. Seemingly made of stone, we learn it’s actually bronze—lighter and more resistant to freeze-thaw cycles that chip away at rock.

Details matter, in architecture and in journalism; surprising story-shaping data and experience are there for the asking. Thus, in the twelve-year course of researching and gathering material for her book, Murray found herself on the roof of the Whitney Block, at Queen’s Park; atop the Bank of Commerce building, in the financial district; and near the summit of the Royal York hotel. “Nobody said no,” she says. “It was a bit like being up with the birds, seeing things you do not normally see.”

Beyond the Web’s reach for the foreseeable future is the virtual time warp offered by old trade magazines, bound into volumes, waiting dustily in library stacks to give their day’s insider account of the progress of every art and industry imaginable. In 1931, the architect Charles Dolphin described to one such journal his timepiece above the lacy, iron-bedecked Consumers’ Gas building (now a Puma store) on Yonge Street as having “an allegorical design of a bird.”

It can be exhilarating to go where Google has never been, meeting the architect E. J. Lennox or the artist Michael Snow through less-known images and print. “It is like surfing the Web,” Murray observes. Finding one thing leads you to the next—maybe a useful journal on the shelf next to the one you went looking for, or a promising, unexplored topic, like Merle Foster, an artist whose work decorated a Pierce-Arrow auto showroom on Yonge Street. Her carved figure of a male—cradling a car, holding a spoked wheel—later guarded the CBC-TV studio there, today an office-supply store.

Who was Merle Foster, Terry Murray wonders. For her next project, she hopes to find out, with some help from the modern Web, and the original one—cobwebbed old archives yielding backstories and new disclosures that tell the city’s long-lost tales, refresh its memory, and give us the long view.