After studying plans for Montrose's new library, religiously conservative residents of the Western Slope town fear that their children will be checking out hellish images instead of heavenly reading material.
An October 20 library board meeting was packed with residents decrying the planned use of four gargoyles on the exterior of the library as well as the placement of a statue of "Barclay, the Beast of Books" (described by one resident as a "hunched-down monkey") in the children's book section.
"Word got out," says pro-gargoyle activist Harold Blackman, "that 35 people were down at the library protesting about the gargoyles, and a bunch of us responded, 'Well, the next thing's going to be book-burning.' It reached the point where it was 'good Christians' versus 'bad satanists.'
"And the gargoyles were really meant to chase away bad spirits."
In the ensuing weeks, Montrose's population of 11,000 divided itself into pro- and anti-gargoyle camps, leading many locals to cite the issue as the most rancorous to hit the town in years.
The battle was mainly fought in the letters columns of Montrose's two daily newspapers, the Morning Sun and the Montrose Daily Press, each of which has a circulation of about 7,000.
Locals say the editor of the Daily Press helped fuel the controversy by labeling opponents of the gargoyles "religious zealots."
"I go nutty having to deal with the religious right," says 74-year-old Lucy Redding, "especially in this small town. I'm frightened by them."
Mike and Teresa McPeak were a little freaked out, too. Mike was forced to write a letter to the editor explaining that he liked the gargoyles after a Michael McPeek wrote a letter blasting them.
Says Teresa McPeak, "People started looking at us funny when [McPeek's] letter ran. We didn't want to be associated with the anti-gargoyle crowd."
"The gargoyles are un-Christian," says Matt Collier, one of the anti-gargoyle letter writers and a member of the 125-member Christian Covenant Fellowship. "The library board justifies them by saying that they were used on churches in Europe to ward off evil. But as far as I'm concerned, the Holy Spirit wards off evil. We don't need gargoyles."
Collier doesn't mind being called a religious zealot. "I'm just upholding my religious beliefs," he says, "because I know that my walk with the Lord has got to be strong."
The president of the library board, Robb Ruyle, had no idea that the designs for the $6.1 million library would stir up so much trouble. He says the statues in question were intended to look like lions.
"I guess what frightened the religious group were the eyes," says Ruyle. "The sketches [of the statues] didn't look demonic to me, but I can see how they could interpret them as unworldly."
The anti-gargoyle folks contend that they are simply concerned about their children and worried about demons.
"Kids in our land are desperately in trouble," says Pastor Steve Millican of the Christian Covenant Fellowship. "They're struggling with drugs, guns, violence--everything under the sun. And on top of those issues, we're hearing reports about young people involved in satanic cults that have led to mass murders and kids killing their parents. Considering all that, why would you set up something that said this stuff was acceptable? The personification of demonic figures says that demons are of no consequence."
The last time the town was embroiled in a controversy of this magnitude was in the late Seventies, when two local nightclubs brought in strippers. That controversy was settled, claims Millican, when Christians stood silent vigil outside the clubs and prayed. "The strip joints closed down," says Millican.
But gargoyles are hardly X-rated. In fact, several other public facilities in Colorado have deemed them suitable viewing for the general public.
Denver International Airport features two gargoyles in its baggage-claim area, where the monsters sit inside open suitcases. And Mimi Moore, DIA's art program director, say's she's heard nothing but compliments about them. "People really like the gargoyles," says Moore. "They're quite dear. Some people down here even said the baggage system only started working after they put in the gargoyles."
Montrose's pro-gargoyle residents wish their critics would pack in their protest, too; they say the zealots have gotten bent out of shape for nothing.
"The religious right may have felt threatened," says Blackman, "but my fourteen-year-old daughter certainly didn't. She said that there's gotta be better things to argue about than gargoyles."
Blackman calls it an "amusing" battle. "But it had the potential of being a divisive, community-splitting incident," he says.
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Based on past experience, Blackman says, the furor doesn't surprise him. "My daughter has a friend who's religiously bent," he says, "and she came over to the house and saw a Ouija board sitting on a shelf. Her parents called the next day and said that their daughter couldn't stay overnight until we got rid of it. They said it was 'the devil's workshop.'
"I just look at these battles as Americana. It's downright foolish, but people seem to have fun with it. They rant and rave at each other, then they sit down and have coffee."
In this case, the ranting and raving got mixed results. Ruyle says the library board decided to scrap plans for Barclay, the Beast of Books and replace him with something "more appropriate." However, when the 20,000-square-foot library opens next April, he says, the gargoyles will be perched on the roof as planned.
"Despite all the controversy, a couple of good things came out of all this," says Ruyle. "First of all, there was a tremendous surge of anti-censorship sentiment by the public. But more importantly, it's been great publicity for the new library.