Everyone needs a periodic rest and recovery, and New York’s iconic stone lions are no exception. Starting in September, the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) leonine statues will be cleaned and restored to pristine condition. The city has earmarked $250,000 to fund the restoration and expects the process to take roughly nine weeks to complete.
“The lions have earned some time at the spa,” New York Public Library President Anthony Marx told Curbed earlier this month, “As great stewards of this building, it is critical that we maintain the lions and ensure that they are strong to inspire everyone for generations to come.”
Marx is right in that the century-old statues need care. The lions’ welfare has been a matter of outspoken concern for a while now. While a large portion of the restoration fund stems from a sizeable grant from the New York Life Foundation, hundreds of New Yorkers donated to support the initiative. For some resident activists, the cause was so important that they took to major media to press the importance of repairs. One such supporter reached out to New York Post journalist John Crudele before the restoration plans were announced, writing, “It was Mayor Fiorello La Guardia who named the lions. If he were alive today, he would be in an uproar about their condition.”
A tad dramatic, perhaps, but the writer had a point. Stone, despite its reputation, doesn’t last forever. One lion is currently missing a chunk from his hind leg and right underbelly, and further sports a chipped front paw and cracked hindquarters.
The wear sounds severe, but — as experts have pointed out in recent articles on the matter — is entirely reasonable and expected. The lions were first carved from porous Tennessee pink marble in 1911, and have been carefully restored periodically — usually on a schedule of once every seven to ten years — to counteract the impact of traffic exhaust, environmental erosion, and human contact. Given that the last conservation efforts occurred in 2011, the work planned for September is right on schedule.
The upcoming restoration efforts will be facilitated by WJE Engineers and Architects and Integrated Conservation Contracting. Conservationists will perform a full assessment, repair cracks with grout, and conduct a thorough laser cleaning that will remove accumulated material from the statues without further damaging the stone. During the process, both lions will be covered in plywood to protect them from environmental harm.
“We know it will be hard to have them covered for nine weeks, but we ask the public to have patience and fortitude,” Marx urged, “This work is critical and must be done.”
Marx’s words might seem like standard PR jargon to those unfamiliar with the NYPL — but those who live in the city can recognize the pun in his phrasing. The stone lions’ names are, as Marx subtly referenced, Patience and Fortitude. Patience watches over the south side of the Library’s steps, and Fortitude rests to the north.
Interestingly, while the lions are best known by those names, their catchalls have changed over the years. When the lions were first carved by the Bronx-based Piccirilli brothers at the start of the 20th century, they were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox in tribute to the NYPL’s founders, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gave the lions their modern names in the 1930s, saying that New Yorkers would need Patience and Fortitude to survive the economic recession of the time.
Since then, the names have stuck — and the lions’ import to New Yorkers has grown. Books have been written about Patience and Fortitude; the pair have been immortalized through countless photographs, art, and memorabilia. As one writer for the NYPL itself describes, “The Lions have witnessed countless parades and been adorned with holly wreaths during the winter holidays and magnificent floral wreaths in springtime […] They have been photographed alongside countless tourists, replicated as bookends, caricatured in cartoons, and illustrated in numerous children’s books.”
Today, Patience and Fortitude serve as icons of life in New York City. With all the joy and local pride that the lions symbolize, New Yorkers can bear the nine weeks of restorations gamely, knowing that by the end, the statues will emerge as majestic as ever — for the next decade or so, at least.
Want to know more about the history of NYC’s most iconic landmarks? Check out our post, The History of NYC in 6 Bridges!