Unicorns, gargoyles and griffins: what else is lurking on Moscow building facades

October 20, 2019

Moscow has absorbed plenty of architectural styles, from wooden architecture of the 15th century to constructivism. Russian and foreign architects, who worked in Moscow at different times, used to bring something new to its appearance.

The most daring experiments and the most exquisite 'decorations' fell on the Art Nouveau period, that is, the late 19th ― early 20th century. Reinterpreting the old trends, the architects of the time freely combined their elements. That was the time Moscow facades of new houses acquired many fantastic creatures.

'Facade-Zoo' for a revenue house

One of the buildings most inhabited by such creatures is Rossiya Insurance Company House (6/1 Sretensky Boulevard). The two buildings form an entire block on Sretensky Boulevard. The house was built in 1902 according to Nikolai Proskurnin’s design. For the largest insurance company in the Russian Empire, he also designed a revenue housing complex on Lubyanskaya Square (later rebuilt and now known as the building of state security agencies), and a revenue house in Riga.

With their stand-alone power plant, independent heating and new air conditioning systems, the houses on Sretensky Boulevard were considered the most high-tech tenement houses in Russia at that time. Besides, revenue house tenants — scientists, university professors and State Duma deputies — enjoyed their own 45 m deep artesian well.

After the October Revolution, the house got occupied by the Soviet intelligentsia. On the lower floors, there was the Russian Telegraph Agency, the Main Artillery Department, the People's Commissariat of the RSFSR and the Literary Department of the Glavpolitprosvet (Main Political and Educational Committee of the Republic), the first Mikhail Bulgakov's place of employment in Moscow.

Even now, you can find witnesses of those times in this block. The balconies of the front facade are guarded by chimeras looking at Turgenevskaya Square, with elephant flute-shaped trunks. Round bay windows are supported by flocks of bats, with birds of prey, reminiscent of the famous Notre Dame gargoyles, supporting balconies in the passage between the buildings. At a closer look, you will see salamanders on the facades. Medieval magicians and alchemists believed that these amphibians stayed safe in the fire. There are also images of more real animals: an awe-inspiring lion near the dial, a pelican in a niche under the clock tower, with hawks next to it.

One can admire these unique buildings in detail for long, as in addition to figures of fictional and real animals, they have antique, medieval and baroque motifs used in their decor. Pediment's tympan has a high relief, a themed composition, the heroes of which are antique philosophers. Facades facing Bobrov Pereulok have winged female figures shaped as ship snouts, and on foundations of small columns you will find cupids.

To admire another renowned 'menagerie house', just walk along Chistoprudny Boulevard towards Pokrovka: in a 15-minute walk from Turgenevskaya Square, near Chistye Prudy, you will find a 'lace' turquoise-and-white building — the former revenue house of the Trinity Church on Gryazekh (14/3 Chistoprudny Boulevard). Take a closer look, and the 'lace' will turn out to be a bas-relief depicting fairy-tale animals, a plenty of them, not easy to count.

Designed by Lev Kravetsky, the building was constructed in 1909. Murava Artistic Guild, being in charge of its decoration, was an association of Stroganov School students, inspired by Abramtsevo Majolica Plant, artistic ceramic workshop, established by Savva Mamontov in his estate. Terracotta bas-reliefs were created according to the sketches of the artist Sergei Vashkov, Viktor Vasnetsov's student and one of the Moscow Art Nouveau masters.

Vashkov in turn took inspiration for this work in Vladimir. Images of fairy-tale animals partially recreate bas-reliefs of St. Demetrius Cathedral built in the 12th century. However, these are not exact copies, but their imaginative enlarged interpretation in grotesque drawing. It has got everything here: griffins, dragons, firebirds, crowned swans, fire-breathing dogs, two-head birds, and a lion in its splendid solitude, with a human face and a luxurious moustache.

Some of the house flats were intended for temporary accommodation of needy parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church on Gryazekh, with some flats rented out. Originally, the building was four stories high, with hip-roof turrets at its edges. In 1945, two more floors were added, with upper bas-reliefs lost.

Murava Guild artists were involved in the creation of another extraordinary Moscow house, a red Terem with majolica on signature triangular pediments (1 Kursovoi Pereulok). This building in Neo-Russian style was erected in 1907 by order of the railway engineer and a major philanthropist Pyotr Pertsov. He announced a competition for the best design of a Russian-style revenue house, intended primarily for intelligentsia engaged in arts. Therefore, the jury included such acclaimed masters of fine arts as Viktor Vasnetsov, Vasily Surikov, Vasily Polenov and Fyodor Shechtel.

800 roubles prize was won by Apollinary Vasnetsov, but the would-be owner of the house liked the work that took the second place, Sergei Malyutin's design. The building in the Russian Empire style, conceived by him, did not quite meet the conditions of the competition, and Pertsov was going to re-do its design, but the ideal option was later found among the rough sketches of the artist.

Malyutin personally worked out all the details of the building-to-be, including drawings for outdoor majolica. These panels, which were made by the ceramic mosaic masters of the Murava Guild, depict the heroes of Russian fairy tales and legends, namely the Sirin bird, fox and hare, pikes and snakes, bull fighting with a bear, and many others.

Animalistic motifs are found not only in mosaics, since the building pipes are made as sleeping owls, the balcony consoles are shaped as dragons, and on the ridge of the roof, you will see a lattice with gilded lions.

Pyotr Pertsov had lived in this house for 15 years. Besides, at different times there lived Robert Falk, Vasily Rozhdestvensky, Alexander Kuprin. In 1908-1909, the basement of the house was occupied by the Bat Cabaret. After the October Revolution, the building was nationalised.

Unicorns, both middle-aged and young

Heraldic emblems, that's where the unicorns should first be looked for today. They are often paired with lions, due to their perpetual struggle for the crown. In Lewis Carroll's poem, it was about the British crown, but this pair of opponents is no stranger to Russian heraldry, since a lion and a unicorn were depicted on Russian gold coins since the second half of the 15th century, the reign of John III.

In 1561, the unicorn appeared on the Ivan the Terrible seals, including on the breast of the double-headed eagle, which also has the image of St. George the Victorious. Paired with the lion,  it can be found on the trademark of the Moscow printing yard and... on the facade of the exit tower of the Synodal Printing House (15 Nikolskaya Street).

The modern building of the printing house was constructed in 1815, simultaneously with the St. Nicholas Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, that is why the printing house's decoration has the same Gothic motifs. Architects Alexei Bakarev and Ivan Mironovsky aimed  to emphasise the antique nature of this place, and it was the Gothic style in the early 19th century that was associated with antiquity. Animals, placed above the entrance, the lion, a symbol of power, and the unicorn, embodiment of purity and rigor, were rendered deliberately archaic look.

Gilded unicorns can be easily found next to the majestic eagles on the spires of the Historical Museum towers (1 Red Square). In 1935, metal sculptures were removed from the spires, with the eagles melted down, but the lions and unicorns were hidden by Museum personnel. They occupied their former place 68 years later.

You will find somewhat different unicorn, far from martial, on another Neo-Gothic building, a revenue house built in Nashchokinsky Pereulok by order of the merited citizen of Moscow Konstantin Lazarev. Pyotr Shchekotov designed the mansion. The building (8 Nashchokinsky Pereulok), with carved decor and ornamented inserts, stands out against the background of neighbouring houses.

However, its unicorn has a secret — it is much younger than it seems. The same as with the chimera, whose head is mounted on a projecting bay window. The thing is that they appeared on the facade only 14 years ago during the reconstruction of the building. There were no such decorative elements in the author's concept, but the specialists of the Historical and Urban Researchers Centre decided to include them in the reconstruction design, with the new inhabitants of the facade perfectly fit into the ensemble.

According to one version, this house served as a prototype for the Gothic-style mansion from Bulgakov's novel 'The Master and Margarita'. From 1934, Mikhail Bulgakov occupied the flat in the opposite building, assigned to him in the House of Writers Cooperative (demolished in the 1970s). Bulgakov spent the last years of his life here. According to literary researchers, the Margarita's mansion became 'Gothic' in the later versions of the renowned novel.

However, there are at least a dozen versions concerning which Moscow building became the prototype of the mansion. 'Margarita Nikolayevna and her husband occupied the entire upper storey of a beautiful mansion in the garden of one of the alleys near Arbat Street,' Bulgakov writes. According to another widespread version, this description is most suitable for amazingly beautiful house in Spiridonovka Street, Zinaida Morozova's Mansion  (17, Spiridonovka Street).

It is also built in Neo-Gothic style according to Fyodor Shechtel's design. As any Gothic building, it has gargoyles on the drainpipes and on the edges of its terraces.

Winged guards

Another landmark associated with this merchant family, owned by Arseny Morozov, appeared in Vozdvizhenka Street in 1899. Eclectic Palace in the Moresque style, designed by Viktor Mazyrin, big and bizarre building, naturally included mythological elements: the rosette above the central entrance is decorated with the figure of a winged lion with a fish tail. And the mansion of Arseny's mother, Varvara Morozova,  located nearby (16 Vozdvizhenka Street), has griffin sculptures. They sit on the porticos of the building that looks diminished against the background of the Moresque Palace.

Images of these mythical creatures are often used in the design of mansions, as well as banks and treasuries, since the symbol of a griffin as the keeper of gold appeared yet in the Ancient Oriental art. It acts as a treasure guard in the myths of other cultures, too. Therefore, for Moscow, the city of merchants and industrialists, griffins on the facades of buildings of the 19th — early 20th century are common thing.

There are also remarkable vigilant eared griffins on the roof of the Anna Olenina and Vladimir Dumnov's Mansion in 5A/8 Maly Kislovsky Pereulok. These formidable guards are mentioned by  Andrei Bely in his autobiographical novel 'Baptized Chinese': 'If you turn to Maly Kislovsky Pereulok, you will find a confusing and strange thing I fear a lot: two winged griffins. I'm afraid of them, two winged griffins raising their paws over the entrance.'

This mansion was built in the mid-18th century, but it gained its present look in the late 19th century. The architect Pavel Samarin re-built it, having added neoclassical features. After the October Revolution, the griffins were removed from the roof to return in 2013 during the restoration. Specialists preserved all the details of the original layout and decoration and won the 'Moscow Restoration' competition.

You will find similar figures of winged lions on the roof of Faleyev’s Mansion in 11 Gagarinsky Pereulok, on the corners of the roof from the facade's side. A small one-story mansion was built after the fire of 1812. In 1895, the house was purchased by civil architect Nikolai Faleyev. He developed its reconstruction design. The architect combined Renaissance elements and the Empire style features, as well as Baroque details — you can see bas-reliefs shaped as small shells above the windows.

A reminder of the house owner's profession, the symbols depicted above the entrance to the building (crossed triangle, shovel, axe, pickaxe, compass and rope), are often mistakenly associated with Masons. In fact, it is the emblem of civil engineers, which was officially approved by the Russian Empire laws.

After the October Revolution, the mansion was taken over by the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to accommodate important foreign guests. The famous American journalist John Reed, the author of the book '10 Days That Shook the World', spent his last days here. He lived in Faleyev's Mansion in 1919-1920.

A list of the landmarks guarded by mythical semi-lions and semi-birds is rather impressive. The portico of the Ivan Morozov's Mansion in 10 Leontiyevsky Pereulok rests on the griffin bas-relief. On the grounds of Vysokiye Gory Estate in 53 Zemlyanoi Val Street you will find perfectly preserved cast-iron figures of griffins, with their images adorning bas-reliefs above the side entrances. In Ilyinka Street, you will spot them at least twice: on the building of the Moscow Merchant Exchange (house 6/1) and on the facade of the revenue house, occupied by the Russian Foreign Trade and Siberian banks (house 12/2/1, building 1).

Former Karakash revenue house  (3/2 Maly Karetny Pereulok) boasts most unique winged guards. The architect of the building Vyacheslav Zhigardlovich placed mystical nocturnal predators over the windows of the second floor along the entire length of the facade:  from Likhova Pereulok's side it has owls, with bats looking at Maly Karetny Pereulok.

The house was built in 1902, with Art Nouveau style mascarons on one of its facades, a typical feature of the time. We do not know why the architect chose the images of nocturnal animals to decorate the building. According to one of the city legends, bats and owls were supposed to scare away some shady people appearing on the streets at night — drunkards, vagrants and thieves. However, there is a good reason to doubt this version, as the bats in Maly Karetny look more appealing than frightening.

You may believe city legends or not, or you may do not know them at all, but the thing is clear that the Moscow has its own fairy-tales, first of all thanks to talented architects of the past and skillful restorers who help to save these architecture masterpieces.

Source: mos.ru

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