Fantastical, weird, and perhaps largely unnoticed by passing Oak Parkers, more than a dozen pumpkin-shaped heads— elfish gargoyles—peer down from the roofline of Park Grove Manor, an apartment building designed by the second best-known architect in Oak Park, Illinois
Oak Park’s best-known architect is, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, who made his home and studio in the Village. Wright designed over two dozen structures in this western suburb of Chicago, which has the largest collection of Wright’s buildings in the world. His Prairie Style—characterized by a strict aesthetic of stiff horizontals and overhanging eaves—is immediately recognizable.
E.E. Roberts, the man who designed and owned Park Grove Manor, designed more buildings in Oak Park than Wright, and his style was much more fluid. He worked in Victorian styles, as well as Tudor, Classic and Medieval Revival, Queen Anne, and Early Modern Prairie Style.
Though Roberts designed many grand residences in Oak Park, his Park Grove Manor reflects a more fanciful side. The round-headed faces that line the cornice of the building stare down playfully, eyes bulging, and mouths open as though shouting or singing out. Some of those mouths—in the Gothic tradition of gargoyles perched on European cathedrals—hold drain pipes between their lips through which to flush rainwater.
On the northern side of the building, two entrances marked “service” are topped with heads and upper bodies of an architect, holding calipers, and a bricklayer, holding bricks. The bricklayer wears a hat, but he is the only one with headgear in the assembly; the architect, like the elfish gargoyles, is bald and shouting. For an architect to put such a figure on a building he designed seems very likely self-referential, and the architect above the entrance looks largely identical to the round-headed gargoyles.
Roberts, a member of the Masonic Order who designed the Masonic temple in nearby Maywood, included the Masonic symbol on the front of the Park Grove Manor building. The Redmond House, another Oak Park home designed by Roberts, was commissioned by A.J. Redmond who held the highest position in Illinois’ Knights Templar.
This Masonic symbol, made of the compass and square, along with the scales of justice, flanks a stars-and-stripes shield topped with the American eagle.
One of the few surviving photos of Roberts shows him to be round of face, fleshy, a hefty man, with a hint of joviality. In the photo, he seems to be in his 30s or 40s.
When Park Grove Manor was finished in 1927, Roberts had been retired for one year. Born in 1866, he would have been around 60 when the building was completed and perhaps without the head of hair we see in the earlier photograph. It seems fair to conjecture that what we are calling gargoyles are a kind of replicated self-portrait of the architect, exuberantly shouting down to all who enter his building, playfully thumbing his nose at the more renown Wright, whose strict aesthetic orthodoxy Roberts had never felt obliged to follow.