Many movies filmed in or about New York can’t help but include them—the lions, Patience and Fortitude, who stand guard at the entrance to the New York Public Library’s main branch. Whether it’s Carrie Bradshaw jumping up and down in her designer shoes saying that the library would be a great place to hold a wedding in Sex and The City, or the Cowardly Lion busting out in song from a “Fortitude” paper mache mold in the Wiz, the lions of the New York Public Library are icons. They have been the inspiration for books, photos, sketches and even an Avante Garde puppet show.
It’s always a treat to see visitors to the city view the lions for the first time. You can’t miss the pair of mighty beasts as they grandly perch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. No matter what their age, tourists notice, take in a good look and then break into a big smile. These fearsome looking yet lovable statues invite you to head up the stairs to see all of the cultural treats inside. The third-floor reading room is a favorite haunt for students, writers, and researchers. You can’t check out books from the main branch; however, you can “call” for any number of titles from the stacks to use while on premises. Across the street, there is a huge lending library, as well as branches all over the city. Some people visit the main branch just for the feel of it. Even if you are just browsing a volume from the surrounding shelves. the long, sturdy wooden tables topped with green bankers shade lights make you feel smart just by sitting there.
Those two magnificently crafted lions were designed by Edward Clark Potter and created in stone by Attilio, Feirrucio, Furio, Getulio, Masaniello, and Orazio Piccirilli, sons of a Bronx stone carver who set up shop near his brownstone, who teamed up with Potter to bring the library lions to life. The pink marble was brought into New York, all the way from Tennesse to get just the right shine and texture for the pieces. The Piccirilli brothers of the Bronx also created some other major sculptures around the city and eventually the country. Sculptors who had a vision of a stone monument could call upon the Piccirilli brothers to execute it with expert precision.
The lions were completed in time for the library’s official dedication in 1911. They were the crowning touch for a house full of treasures where anyone, no matter, how slim their wallet, could go and find information about just about any topic under the sun. Just sitting on the steps, flanked by these two marvels in marble while having a cup of take-out coffee is good for the soul. Like another grand creation of the age, Grand Central Terminal, The New York Public Library is a people’s palace, open to all.
Their names of the lions have changed over the years. After the dedication, the pair were named Leo Aster and Leo Lenox, after the library’s founders, Jacob Aster and James Lenox. Later, folks decided to dress them up in costume and name them Lady Astor and Lord Lenox. No one seemed to mind the renaming, despite the fact that both lions had full male manes. Whether it be top hat and tails or evening gowns and jewels, the lions perched proudly despite the indignity of having to wear such silly outfits. It was all in good fun. Sports fans would decorate Patience and Fortitude in team gear, including a scarf blazing with one team’s colors, only to have it removed and replaced with another. This became a tradition, particularly around World Series time each year, as New Yorkers have always taken their baseball seriously. Any Red Sox fans who would dare to co-op the lions for their team would be dealt with in New York Style. That usually meant getting much more than a simple Bronx “cheer.” After all, from their beginning, the New York Public Library’s lions have been the city’s unofficial mascots.
Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, having won the New York mayoral election in 1933 had his hands full with many tasks in his new position. He had to clean up the street crime, deal with the banking industry, and worry about the stock market. It was a political high wire act for a mayor in a society that feared the ever growing juxtaposition between the extravagantly wealthy and those living in crippling poverty.
As Mayor, LaGuardia officially renamed the pair of library lions, Patience and Fortitude, which was just what the city needed, as it was still struggling to recover from the 1929 stock market crash and massive unemployment. One of the major hurdles the mayor had to contend with was the image of Italian immigrants. Depicted in films and literature as notorious gangsters, he set out to show the positive side of Italian-American culture. The fact that he named the two gorgeous stone lions that were crafted by a family of immigrant workers just emphasized his point. Italian-American immigrants were and still are known as excellent stone masons and construction contractors. The Piccirilli family and other such artisans helped make New York what it is today.
The city has changed so much since the lions have been placed on their pedestals, but the statues have remained the same—almost. By the year 2000, Patience and Fortitude were showing considerable signs of wear so in 2004, a major restoration project was undertaken by the city to make sure these beautiful sculptures last many more lifetimes. It took lots of cleaning and repair to bring them back to their former glory In 2006, the curators of the library’s art made the difficult decision that the feline pair were not to be “dressed up” anymore, to help preserve them for posterity. This ban on costuming Patience and Fortitude was much to the chagrin of many New Yorkers who liked to see what the handsome duo would be wearing, particularity at Christmas when they were swaddled with decorative holiday wreaths. No longer dressed up in sports gear, graduation caps or other frills, the lions remain as nature intended. The lions do not need adornment. In their mighty bare essence, they still serve as a reminder that no matter how small and insignificant a person may feel, they could still be welcomed by these stone kings of the jungle to get their fill of knowledge.
The New York Public Library bookend lions, Patience flanking the south end and Fortitude the north, have lasted through wars, disruptions, protests, crime waves, economic prosperity and crippling despair. Patience and Fortitude are symbols of everything New York and its people stand for—they are fearless, yet humble in their beauty. Edward Clark Potter could have posed them differently. They could be stalking, or roaring, but no, they are just waiting. Waiting for the next person with a curious mind to pass by, there where 42nd Street meets 5th Avenue.