The story behind Saint John's strange stone carvings
Weird, often-overlooked grotesques illuminate life in 19th-century Saint John
Listen to "The Strange Stone Carvings of Saint John," the second episode of The Hook, a podcast from CBC New Brunswick. You can listen to the full episode by clicking on the CBC Podcasts page or by subscribing in iTunes.
Uptown Saint John has a reputation for strange characters — and the crew hanging out at the corner of Prince William and Princess streets are no exception.
A stern-looking gentleman with a walrus moustache and a bowler hat. A sad-looking, bearded guy with a floppy hat. A lion with bat wings. A chubby little monster with his tongue sticking out.
The 16 sandstone figures were carved on the Chubb's Corner building at 111 Prince William St. in 1878.
Many people don't even notice them.
"I've walked people along that that street that walked by those buildings every day and never looked up and saw them," said Saint John storyteller David Goss.
The statues, often incorrectly referred to as gargoyles, are more properly called grotesques, since they lack a function as a water spout.
Whatever you want to call them, they've sparked a plethora of local legends.
One story holds that the figures "represent judges at the time who had a boy hanged for stealing a loaf of bread," said a 1998 article in the New Brunswick Reader.
Another tale holds they were created as revenge by a stone carver whose bosses refused to pay him.
Others say they're caricatures of prominent Saint Johners of the late 19th century.
"Everyone seems to have different opinions," according to architect and art historian John Leroux.
The truth has to do with the rebuilding of Saint John after the Great Fire of 1877, and the artists and politicians that helped shape a singular era in the history of Canada's oldest incorporated city.
Stand out 'in their ugliness'
Chubb's Corner was named for Henry Chubb, a printer, newspaper publisher and politician.
In the 1850s, he ran Chubb's News Room, a reading room and bookstore where businessmen gathered to read the papers and discuss the news of the day.
The present-day building was built by his son, George Chubb, after the original business was destroyed in the 1877 fire.
The carvings were not met with universal approval.
An editorial in one of the Saint John newspapers declared the building "highly disfigured by these meaningless heads, which stand boldly out in all their ugliness.
"The worker who cut them (they can hardly been called carved, for the execution is bad) had no feeling in him whatsoever, and we trust that no more of our public buildings will be adorned with such buffoonery from his hands."
That "buffoonery" was likely the work of James McAvity, "a pre-eminent stone sculptor in Saint John," according to Leroux.
McAvity's statues on the provincial legislature in Fredericton have been called one of New Brunswick's artistic treasures.
"A lot of [the figures on the legislature] are similar faces to those that are on the Chubb's Corner building in Saint John, and they were carved at essentially the same time," Leroux said.
Ousted mayor, building owner
McAvity left no written record of his plans for the Saint John sculptures, or who they were supposed to depict.
What we do know is that at least two of them seem to be portraits.
The moustached figure on the front of the building bears a striking resemblance to Sylvester Zobieski Earle Jr., mayor of Saint John from 1877 to 1879.
Earle helped lead the reconstruction efforts following the devastating fire — and wasn't exactly popular, according to Goss.
"After one year, [voters] didn't think he'd done a sufficient job of looking after rebuilding the port, and he was tossed out of office."
The Roman-nosed figure next to Earle is likely George Chubb, according to Goss, who described George Chubb as "one of the city's most eligible bachelors."
What about the other 14 figures?
McAvity's inspiration for the remaining gargoyles is more difficult to pin down.
"The most commonly told story is that they were members of the common council at the time, and they were looking over at the council chambers that were on the City Hall building on the corner of Princess and Prince William Street," said Goss.
As for the story about a stonemason lampooning his cheap bosses — that's almost certainly false, said Leroux.
"That the brick has these niches designed for stone ornaments suggests that these were 100 per cent part of the design," he said.
Leroux said they may not be portraits at all.
"There may not be more mystery than that [McAvity] wanted to animate that corner," he said.
"When a newspaper of the period calls them 'meaningless heads,' it makes me think that they were not particular people."
Chubb's Corner might have the most well-known grotesques in Saint John — but they're far from the only ones.
On nearby 122 Prince William St., other stone carvings attributed to McAvity depict "an animal spitting out money, and a lamb with ears of corn, which was a metaphor representing wealth and plenty," said Leroux.
The old Furlong's Liquor Store at 1 Princess St., once operated by Thomas Furlong, an art connoisseur and merchant of fine liquor who lent paintings from his collection to local art exhibitions and once hosted a lunch with Oscar Wilde, "has grapes on it to denote he was a wine merchant," said Goss.
Such carvings were practical, as well as decorative.
In a period of widespread illiteracy, Goss said, "people could identify buildings by distinctive carvings on them. If you had business with Mr. Chubb, you would know that was his building."
But the reason the carvings still resonate is that "they are filled with life," Leroux said. "There's a real sense of humanity, and not being proper. That's what you would have seen on Prince William Street at the time: it's him showing a mirror back to Saint John."
Although the building is a "wonderful example" of late Victorian commercial design, people "don't talk about the architecture," Leroux said.
"All they talk about are the stone figures."
So even if some people at the time hated the carvings, "McAvity totally got it right … it forces us to make up our own stories — and it also makes us look closer at these amazing buildings."