HPHS’ Brownstone Owl: A Symbol of Learning

HPHS’ Brownstone Owl: A Symbol of Learning

The Brownstone Owl, finished in 1883 and placed over the main door of Hartford Public High School facing east, became the symbol of the school over the years. Students referred to it in essays, school newspaper and classbook articles; its image, in varying poses and styles, was placed on pins, ribbons, bookmarks, key chains, and other school memorabilia. This remarkable piece of sculpture is the work of Albert Entress, a German sculptor who came to Hartford in the late 19th Century.

Architect George Keller had a special fondness for the owl as a symbol of learning and he incorporated it into the design of other buildings besides HPHS. Keller’s library in Norfolk, Connecticut, has a gargoyle in the shape of an owl at the corner of the porch. In a 1911 addition to the library, a carved owl statue was placed at the center of the overmantel of the fireplace. This owl is very similar to our 1883 Owl and it is probably the work of Albert Entress. The library in Ansonia, Connecticut, also designed by Keller, has two bosses in owl head shapes on the consoles of the arches over the stairway.

Tracing its history back to 1638, HPHS began as a classical school and thus the owl, mascot of Athena, Hellenic Goddess of Wisdom, was appropriate. The school is indebted to Keller and Entress for the gift of such a fine piece of art to be placed on the school, and most likely this is how the owl became the school mascot.

Our owl is a rarity. Nationally, there are very few animal sculptures in brownstone and ours, although weatherworn, is one of the finest. When the 1883 building was expanded by Keller in 1897, the owl and portico were moved to the north side of the Hopkins Street building facing Farmington Avenue. It became the favorite entrance for the students, and there it remained peacefully for 66 years until the entire educational complex was demolished to make way for the Yankee Expressway, now I-84.

Against the recommendations made to Principal T. J. Quirk by the teacher committee for school renovations in 1961, workers for the City of Hartford took sledgehammers and destroyed the beautiful portico with its columns, oak leaf carvings and carved animal bas-reliefs. The teacher committee wanted the entire portico and Owl to be rebuilt in the Great Court of the new building on Forest Street. However, only the Owl was spared the attack of the sledgehammers and it was moved to a perch on the façade of the new school which opened in 1963.

It is interesting to note that Entress’s daughter, Katherine E. Locke, had expressed an interest in obtaining the Owl in 1957 when demolition of the school was imminent. In a letter dated October 3, 1957, School Superintendent Robert H. Black replied to Mrs. Locke that the Board of Education had decided to incorporate the owl and a memorabilia room into the design of the new school. Entress’s granddaughter, Carolyn Locke de Kanter, visited the school in 2000 and expressed her concern for the future of the architectural fragments. She was assured that they would be used in the renovated HPHS in 2006.

The statue Youth Bearing His Shield or Adolescence, another symbolic sculpture, was restored and placed in a metal cage in the auditorium lobby of the 1963 building. It had originally graced the façade of the 1897 building in a niche over the main entrance.  Apparently, the sculptor modeled it after Donatello’s St. George. The young man is holding a shield carved with an owl in relief and the letters “HPHS” inscribed at the top.

The shield is symbolic of the education at HPHS which Entress believed would guide and encourage the students as they graduate and go out into the world. Although we believed this statue to be the work of Entress, it was most likely carved by John Massey Rhind, according to David F. Ransom in George Keller, Architect. The story of “Youth” is explained in XV of this Series. In Keller’s time, the school was one of the leading public high schools in the nation; Keller and Entress, made sure that their own children would graduate from the Hartford Public High School.

At Forest Street, the Owl was perched on a pedestal high up on the exterior wall to the right of the main entrance. It watched the comings and goings of the school community for 43 years from that position. In April, 2006, it was removed in order to safeguard it during the renovations of the school which commenced in that year. After four years in storage, it was finally placed inside the school, high above the new main lobby on January 6, 2010. Youth Bearing His Shield or Adolescence now occupies a prominent position in the HPHS Museum & Archive, which is located in room 205 of the school.

By R. J. Luke Williams

Hartford Public High School Museum and Archive