The Girl on the Wall - Idlewild Presbyterian Church

Georgianna Awsumb Ensminger died last week in Memphis at the age 0f 93. She had graduated from Central High School, the school then known as Southwestern, and attended graduate school at the University of Illinois. By all accounts, she had a good, long life — married, with three sons, and countless grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — and was active in the YWCA, King's Daughters and Sons Home, and other civic endeavors.

But what's all this got to do with Idlewild Presbyterian Church, beside the fact that she was a lifelong member there?

Well, Georgianna was one of the two "Faces of Idlewild," with her image cast in stone above one of the doorways to the cathedral.

Here's how that came about. Her father, George Awsumb, was one of our city's greatest architects. Born in Norway sometime in the late 1880s, he came to America and studied engineering at the University of Illinois. He was struggling as an architect when he won the design competition to build Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. After that, he stayed here and designed a number of landmarks, among them Idlewild Presbyterian Church, completed in 1927.

Do you see where I'm going with this? In a rather quirky move, George decided to add the stone likenesses of two of his children, Georgianna and Richard, to an ornamental doorway that opens onto a courtyard along Union Avenue. (An older son, Wells, was already enshrined on a church George designed in Montgomery, Alabama.)

George's face is also on Idlewild, but you need binoculars to see it. At the very top corners of the tall bell tower are four carvings representing the saints: Mathew, Mark, Lukc, and John. Between these are 16 other figures representing various professions. One of these is an architect,  and the stone face with the long nose and eyeglasses (he's on the south side of the tower, holding a model of the church itself) is supposed to be Awsumb himself.

George Awsumb told a reporter many years ago (no, it wasn't me) that "ornament is one of the really vital phases of church design. When the ornamentation becomes meaningless the church is no longer alive." He certainly added life — even part of his own family — to the old stones at Idlewild.

And as for Georgianna, I wonder how she felt about it? As a lifelong member of Idlewild, did she always tell her friends when they passed through the doorway, "See that face up there? That's ME." Well, I certainly would have.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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