The Library Lions

The New York Public Library consists of four major research libraries and 88 branch libraries.  The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building,  a part of the library,  was built on   Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in the first decade of the 20th century.  On May 24, 1911 the library opened it doors to the public. About  50,000 people   d visited the building on that  first day.  
 A year before the opening, in 1910,  Edward Clark Potter, American sculptor,  was given the commission to sculpt two  animals for the New York Public Library’s main branch.  


President  Theodore Roosevelt , who was the hunter, wanted to  see two  bison.   A small group lobbied for beavers in honor of Library co-founder John Astor, whose family had made a fortune in beaver pelts. But the sculptor set for lions.  He already made two  lionesses for the Morgan Library, located at 225 Madison Avenue at East 36th Street in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. 

 Edward   Potter used clay to sculpt the contours of his work and made a plaster cast. The actual carving was done by the    Piccirilli family that had a studio in the Bronx.    Giuseppe and six sons used the same   Tennessee marble that was used by them used for the Lincoln Memorial and Grand Central Station.
Potter received  $8000 and credit for the work  and The Piccirillis    were paid $5000.   The lions were originally named    Leo Astor and Leo Lenox after John Jacob Astor and James Lenox, who founded the library .

At the  very beginning these two  lions were not welcomed by the public.  “We do not want square-jawed lions,” one man declared in a letter to the editor of The New York Times. Another letter-writer, who said that they looked like “a cross between a hippopotamus and a cow,” dismissed them as “monstrosities.”  Future sculptors attempted to appease the public, even trimming the manes of these fierce statues.


 With the Depression taking its toll on the city, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared them to be “Patience” and “Fortitude.” He felt that these were the qualities city residents needed most to survive the horrible economic times.
Later  lions became very popular.  On their 44th birthday, in 1955, The New York Times reported that letters to “The Lion Library” were delivered as addressed.  In the  odd comedy “A Day For Surprises” by  John Guare  one of the lions  eats a librarian who had been having a romance with another library employee.


These days the lions are the symbol of the library.    There is a lion,  specifically, Fortitude, the northern of the two lions, on the logo of the library.
For decades  the decorating  of the lions with  wreaths  had delighted those passing by the library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.  The annual tradition of was halted in 2004 after it was discovered that the were damaging the century-old stone.  Nine years later in 2013 new    wreaths were created.    these wreaths  are made of artificial Norwood green spruce, have red bows but no lights. Each weighs 150 pounds.


On  May 20, 2011   New York Public Library’s iconic marble lions Patience and Fortitude turned  100 years old . To honor the occasion, famed artist Nathan Sawaya has created two mini-versions,   half the size of the actual lions ,  out of more than 60,000 gray LEGO blocks. These LEGO-Lions  were on public view on the Fifth Avenue Plaza for one week in May 2001.