Stone Faces Stand Guard Over Milwaukee's Bay View High School

Sep 9, 2016

With the start of the new school year, WUWM's Bubbler Talk probes a school-related question. Asker Mike Osowski wants to know the story behind Bay View High School's many stone faces.

More than 160 of them adorn the building, with most along its upper edge, but others around the doorways. 

There may be even more concrete faces, those were just the ones we were able to count. Others may be hidden, due to the addition MPS tacked onto the school in the mid-1970s.

"They all have very animated, human-like faces, and some have props with them like scrolls or musical instruments," Osowski says.

But, why are they there?

At least 7 faces adorn one doorway behind Mike Osowski and Ron Winkler.
Credit Marge Pitrof

For that answer, WUWM turned to Ron Winkler. He knows a lot about Bay View High School - he's a 1968 alum and wrote a book  about the school for its 100th anniversary.

However, the reason for the stone faces remain a mystery to him. During all his research, Winkler never stumbled upon the reason the district or builder decided to include stone faces.

“No one knows why these were put here and why so much money was spent," he says. "The figure, I believe, was $50,000 that was spent for the gargoyles."

Osowski does some quick math: What cost $50,000 about a century ago would cost $600,000 today. So, Milwaukee Public Schools spent a big chunk of money putting faces onto the facade of Bay View High School...on a building that was already grand.

The school's style is known as Collegiate Gothic and was built during the WWI era (1914-1918). It was a time when resources were scarce and horses hauled the building materials. Construction of Bay View High School started in 1917 and was finally completed in 1922 because of several war-related delays.

Castle on the Hill
Credit RON WINKLER

“There were other schools built in a similar architectural style at the time. Van Ryn and DeGelleke were the architects for Milwaukee's Washington High School, Riverside High School (and also for UW-Milwaukee's Mitchell Hall and MATC's main downtown building), and none of those have the gargoyles,” Winkler says.

A close up look at one of Bay View High School's many faces.
Credit Marge Pitrof

We decided to ask Milwaukee's gargoyle 'expert', Mary MacAndrews. She gives annual tours around Halloween for Historic Milwaukee, Inc. called “Gargoyles, Grotesques and Dragons” and knows a lot about Milwaukee’s stone faces.

MacAndrews is quick to point out that the faces on Bay View High School may not technically be gargoyles.

“Technically, a gargoyle is a water spout. It is a face, either human, humanoid or animal - or something you cannot quite define that is put on a building and structured in a way so that it will expel water off the roof," she explains. "The use of true gargoyles ended with finding ways to do it better. Since then, what we call gargoyles, technically, are called grotesques. A grotesque is a gargoyle-like thing on a building that does not spit water off the roof. It is there for decoration."

The 1956 yearbook mentions the faces in its forward.
Credit Marge Pitrof

MacAndrews says the buildings most associated with gargoyles are castles and great churches.

“And when they were truly gargoyles, they were also often indicating a message," she says. "Often, [they were] pretty ugly and pretty scary, and they either were saying come into the church and we will protect you, or you if you stay away from the church, these guys are going to get you."

"The buildings we see in Milwaukee that have gargoyles and grotesques on them are turn of the 20th century, and the purpose was simply decoration,” MacAndrews explains.

Bay View High School's 1956 yearbook forward reads: "Unchanging through the years, gargoyles that border Bay View's walls, look down upon the scenes below. Scenes that have varied with the generations that have walked our campus paths and made our halls their high school home."

After visiting Bay View High School to check out the faces, she says some look as if they could have been gargoyles.

“I found a whole line of faces – some of which actually are structured in a way that, if they hooked it up right, they could send water off the side of the building. They are wonderful. It’s worth a drive to look at the whole building, and then to look at the gargoyles,” MacAndrews says.

Ron Winkler says the school was nicknamed ‘Castle on the Hill.' Maybe that had something to do with it – characters to guard the castle as well as those who entered it.

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