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.