Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Library Lions

Meet Patience.  Or Is It Fortitude?

Above is a view of one of the two lion statues that flank the front entrance of the main building of the New York Public Library.  Their names are Patience and Fortitude. They are among the city's best known landmarks.

The library itself is a gorgeous Beaux Arts structure that faces Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets in Manhattan.  It harkens back to the time when important public buildings were designed to look, well, important. 

Here is a photo of library and lions, taken not long after the facility opened in 1911.


New York always has been a wealthy city, and its library has benefitted from the generosity of the city's rich residents.  With their help and over time, NYPL has grown to encompass many branches and to rank second only to the Library of Congress in its collections.

It was launched by an 1886 bequest in the will of Samuel J. Tilden, who wanted to give the city a free public library.  (Tilden is remembered also as the New York governor who won the popular vote but lost a hotly disputed electoral count to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election.)

Later donations from John Jacob Astor and James Lenox enabled the construction of the Fifth Avenue building.  

Another Lenox gift to the library is America's first Gutenberg Bible, which he bought in 1847.  It is displayed outside what is now known as the Rose Main Reading Room. Here it is:

The reading room is a spectacular space, almost 300 feet long and with a 51-foot ceiling.  (The Rose name acknowledges a recent wealthy donor family.)  It is a public space that also has been used by prominent writers, including E.L. Doctorow, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore White, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer.  The room  is under renovation at the moment, but it will emerge in 2017 looking again as it does in the photo below.

Various later donations have been recognized by the naming of other rooms and collections. Among the names: Berg, Blass, Dorot, Firya, Hutson, Milstein, Pincus, Wallace and Wallach.

The most recent major donation came from a cofounder of the Blackstone Group.  His $100 million pledge, announced in 2011, kicked off a billion-dollar NYPL fundraising campaign.  In recognition, the Fifth Avenue main branch has been renamed the Steven A. Shwarzman Building.   

Patience and Fortitude

But back to the cats.  

Originally, the lions were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, perhaps unofficially, for the two men who wrote the checks for the main branch.

In the 1930s, the lions were renamed by the mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who thought patience and fortitude were traits that would help New Yorkers get through the Great Depression.

Sculpted of handsome pink Tennessee marble, the lions have featured often in tourist photographs and have been dressed up with Yankees and Mets caps, among other decorations, for holidays and other events.

In 2004, P and F were thoroughly cleaned and restored.  (The building's exterior was gussied up similarly for its 2011 centennial.)  

After the work was completed, NYPL administrators declared there would be no more decorating of the lions.  Librarians can be that way sometimes.

The new stricture did not last, however.  Here is a later picture of Patience and Fortitude, taken in December 2013.

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