Mark Kocent (C ‘82, GCP ‘91, GFA ‘91) fell for Penn’s gargoyles when they called him a jackass.
On a fall morning in 1978, Kocent—then a first year studying design of the environment—peered at a fixture on the western gate of the Quad. With one hand, he steadied his paper. With the other, he painted broad strokes with diluted black watercolor, forming an outline of the limestone boss that met his gaze. The sculpture, a donkey displaying an open book with the title “ARCHITECTURE,” felt like an 80–year–old inside joke. Kocent, now the University architect, chuckles describing his longtime favorite carving.
“I was always tickled by the fact that the architect was sort of making fun of himself with the profession,” he says.
The donkey boss is part of a vast collection of miniature sculptures that adorn the buildings around Penn’s campus (the exact number of figures is contested—Penn Today reported at least 163, but the Philomathean Society counted 450). Of the hundreds of characters, very few are actually gargoyles, a common misconception. Kocent describes gargoyles as “a fancy, decorated downspout,” while bosses are purely “decorative elements” carved out of stone and set into a building's facade. The earliest figures on campus were most likely affixed to the drains of the Fisher Fine Arts Library in the late 1800s. These are true gargoyles, Kocent says. They wicked water away from the building and served the original purpose of decorative iconography: telling stories.
“Between the 12th and 16th centuries [when gargoyles were invented], the public was largely illiterate,” Kocent explains. “[Gargoyles] were a way of sharing stories, myths, and cultural lessons that [they] wanted to be handed down from one generation to another.”
Kocent hopes most Penn students were literate by the early 1900s, when the Quad figurines were installed, so he presumes their purpose was mostly decorative—both memorializing and satirizing campus life.
After 120 years, the stony–faced campus residents’ stories are being adapted to the digital age in the form of the Penn Gargoyles Instagram page. The distorted figures find a new life on the feed of 450 followers (and a handful of explicit commenters—“Send pic ❤ @curvy_girls_model 2M+”).
Kathy Kruger (SP2 ‘03), the mastermind behind the account, takes me on a walk around the Quad’s perimeter to discuss her craft—professionally photographing the demonic visages that dot Penn’s campus. Kruger currently works as senior research resources manager in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, but she’s bounced around the medical and veterinary schools and University secretary’s office for 20 years. She’s also a hobby photographer and a self–described “goth” kid who manages two social media accounts, one for her favorite squirrel snaps and another for detailed photos of the gargoyles.
Kruger began taking photos when she was young. She chose her first instrument, a lithe film camera called the Kodak 110, from a catalog of gift items from her father’s work. In her 20s and 30s, Kruger photographed everything she could, from friends’ concerts to her urban adventures. She pulls out her phone to show me some of her favorite shots and thumbs through a dozen photo albums, her life’s work in neat little rows.
Kruger began taking pictures of the bosses in 2019 after realizing she had a lens that could capture their detail. On her first weekend, she spent hours documenting the figures on the outside of the Quad, marveling at their intricacies and posting the images to @penn_gargoyles. After capturing the Quad, Penn’s largest collection, she nabbed shots of the Evans Building of the School of Dental Medicine, the fraternity houses dotting Locust Walk, Fisher Fine Arts Library, and more. Over the COVID–19 pandemic, she also traveled to Princeton and Yale universities to photograph their bosses. Now, three years after Kruger began, she’s pretty close to finishing Penn’s collection, and her passion page has nearly 1,000 posts.
As we walk along the north side of the Fisher Hassenfeld dorm, Kruger stops in her tracks, eyes fixed on a dragon sculpture holding an open book. We squint to read the engraving; it seems to say “THE RECORD,” the name of Penn’s yearbook.
“I don’t think I’ve ever photographed it from this side before,” Kruger says. “There’s still some mysteries to be uncovered.”
She makes a note to return another day.
A few more strides along the Quad wall, and she points out a figurine holding a basket that says “COPE AND STEWARDSON,” the name of a Philadelphia–based architecture firm created by Penn professors Walter Cope and John Stewardson. The firm designed a series of Penn buildings in the early 20th century, including Fisher Bennett Hall (then just Bennett Hall), the Quad, and the Evans dental building, drawing inspiration from Oxford and Cambridge. The style was dubbed "Collegiate Gothic," and bosses became a fixture of this type of building on Penn’s campus, as well as other Cope and Stewardson campuses like Princeton University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Poring over University histories, Kruger found that the bosses were most likely designed by John Joseph Borie, a former student in Penn’s architecture program who hid Easter eggs about student life and American history throughout campus.
Kruger enjoys spotting the designs that poke fun at university life (and the squirrels, of which there are a few dotted around the Quad). She points out a pair of buff football players, a monkey dangling a scroll labeled “DIPLOMA,” and a man holding a stein who she’s heard is supposed to be Ben Franklin—although she doesn't believe it.
“These were the ones that stood out to me even before I took pictures,” Kruger says.
We round the corner, and she pauses again to point out two historical references—a contorted depiction of former United States President Woodrow Wilson choking the former Mexican President Victoriano Huerta, and a humanlike creature riding a propeller plane. Representations of technology like the airplane are rare, but Kruger says she’s even heard of a boss at Yale that shows a tablet device.
Mark Kocent explains that even if the bosses don’t clearly reference Penn’s past, they all carry historical significance. He disappears from our Zoom call into his office and returns holding a block of red terracotta that curls up into a scalloped tail.
It’s part of the roof of the Sigma Chi fraternity house, where Kocent lived for a few years as an undergraduate student. The house, located at 38th and Locust streets, was previously owned by the Drexel family, who adorned the ridge with a stone dragon that snaked the length of the roof. After residing in Sigma Chi, Kocent lived in the Quad for a total of nine years, where he and his wife raised their first child.
“It feels like they should carve a gargoyle after me,” he quips.
As University architect, Kocent is now spearheading an effort to transform the Quad. In the next few years, all of the bathrooms will be replaced and the facilities updated. The bosses will remain largely untouched—they are made of limestone, which erodes easily—suspended over students’ heads for another century. However, in this chapter of Penn history, thanks to the minimalist feed of @penn_gargoyles, they also live online.
Want to know which Penn Gargoyle you are? Find out below!!!
1. It’s a Friday night in University City. Where are you?
A. Wherever the night takes me (seedy fraternity basement).
B. Nowhere and everywhere all at once.
C. CIS office hours.
D. None of your business.
2. Your hot TA (M21) tells you that you should smile more. What do you say?
B. Nothing. It’s within his right to free speech.
C. “That’s wildly inappropriate and reliant on the sexist paradigm that female–presenting individuals should make themselves physically appealing to gain the approval of men, especially in academic or professional settings.”
D. “You should read 34th Street more.”
3. You’re attending a Penn sporting event. Why?
A. You’re in the Penn Band. (Why?)
B. You got lost on your way to your chemistry recitation in the dankest basement you’ve ever seen.
C. Free stuff.
D. You’re trying to convince your younger sister, a senior in high school, not to attend the University of Pennsylvania.
4. You are accosted on Locust by a student offering Insomnia cookies for downloading their app. How do you react?
A. Download it and get your bag. It’s the third time you’ve done this today.
B. Trample them and keep speed–walking. Your class in DRL started eight minutes ago.
C. Say you don’t have a phone, and that the action is classist and alienating—it rewards wealthy individuals with iOS devices and concentrates Insomnia cookie possession at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.
D. Only download it if they download your app.
5. Your Wharton roommate asks if she can host a meeting for her Women in Weapons Manufacturing club in your apartment. What do you say?
A. “Yes, queen!!!”
B. “No, sorry, I’m having some friends over from Students for University Expansion.”
C. Nothing. You are from the Bay Area.
D. “Book a GSR, bitch.”
6. You promised your friend on the dining plan that you’d have dinner with them, and they’re here to collect. Where are you going?
A. KCECH—no one will see you.
B. Falk. It’s dairy day.
C. McClelland. It’s good, but it might not be worth seeing that regrettable first–year hookup.
D. Home. No friendship is worth that food.
7. You hear a knock at the door. It’s new Penn President Liz Magill, and she wants in at your pregame. What do you say?
A. “Name three brothers.”
B. “Can you buy us another six pack before Acme closes?”
C. *in Stouffer brandishing kitchen knife* “How did you find me?”
D. Nothing. You never make it to the door.
If you answered A:
You're drunk. Also Ben Franklin.
If you answered B:
You're mostly chilling.
If you answered mostly C:
You're a tricky little bugger wearing a tasteful shawl.
If you answered mostly D:
You are a beautiful woman—sort of.