Birthing the New York Public Library Lions
When Edward Clark Potter was given the commission to sculpt two flanking animals for the New York Public Library’s main branch at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in 1910, he found himself fielding several suggestions. Former President and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt declared he’d like to see bison. A small group lobbied for beavers in honor of Library co-founder John Astor, whose family had made a fortune in beaver pelts.
A semi-aquatic rodent wasn't noble enough for Potter, who settled on lions—6 feet by 12 feet—to sit as sentries for the north and south sides of the steps. When plaster prototypes of the sculptures were unveiled in late 1910, Potter thought they would be a welcome addition to both his portfolio and the growing population of sculptures in the city.
He was wrong [PDF]. People hated them. It would take a few name changes, gender reassignment, and an economic depression for Potter’s work to be appreciated—and for people to figure out that he hadn’t done it alone.
Public sculptures—and ensuing public criticism—had become commonplace following the end of the Civil War, when hard-won states and landmarks led to a strong sense of territorial pride. Potter had contributed to the exercise by creating equestrian monuments like General Grant in Philadelphia. He was known as an “animalier,” preferring to work with wildlife rather than the human anatomy, and came to the library assignment on the recommendation of colleague Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Like many of his contemporaries, Potter wasn’t a solo act. While he used clay to sculpt the contours of his work and would later fabricate a plaster cast, the actual carving was outsourced. In this case, the lions went to the famed Piccirilli family that had a studio in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood. Using specialized cutting tools, the Tuscany-born artists—patriarch Giuseppe and six sons—chiseled away on the same Tennessee marble used for the Lincoln Memorial and Grand Central Station.
The lions went up in 1911, with Potter receiving $8000 and credit for the work. The Piccirillis, who were paid $5000, disliked publicity and rarely signed their names to their assignments. The lions were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox for library co-founders John Astor and James Lenox before becoming “Lady” Astor and Lord Lenox.
By any name, no one seemed overly impressed. The New York Times, which kept a close watch on the public reaction to the sculptures, reported that letter writers found the lions too tame. They were “mealy-mouthed,” “complacent,” and “squash-faced.” One critic compared their appearance to a cross between a hippopotamus and a cow and declared them “monstrosities.” Complaints that their manes were too hairy prompted city officials to hire a sculptor to chip away at the marble, giving them a haircut.
New York City Major Fiorello La Guardia had one final revision. When the Great Depression bombarded the nation in the 1930s, he re-named the lions Patience and Fortitude in order to remind citizens of the qualities they’d need to make it through a dire financial situation.
The lions persevered, with the early backlash fading from memory. After World War II, the two began to symbolize holidays—wreaths and floral arrangements accompanied seasonal changes—and sports fandom, with Mets or Yankees hats sometimes perched atop their heads.
Decades of pigeon deposits, climbing children, and decoration eventually took their toll. In 2004, the city spent two weeks and $114,000 to steam-clean and scrub the lions with a toothbrush before applying mortar to expanding cracks. After a brief prohibition on accessorizing them, the Library allowed for less-abrasive Christmas decorations in 2013.
Because the Piccirilli studio closed down in the 1940s following the death of three of the brothers, and the property was demolished in the 1960s, it’s unknown which members were responsible for the lions. The details seemed unimportant to them, but their solidarity was in the spirit of the city. When asked why all of the siblings had made up their minds to become artists, Maso Piccirilli replied, “There is no mind to it. Our souls are all the same one.”