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Birthing the New York Public Library Lions

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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.

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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.”

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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