Library lions Patience and Fortitude to get $250G restoration

The New York Public Library's iconic lions -- Patience, left, and Fortitude -- will receive a much-needed and much-deserved cleaning and restoration. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Battling weather and exhaust from vehicles on Fifth Avenue, lions Patience and Fortitude are due for a cleaning.

The New York Public Library's iconic lions -- Patience, left, and Fortitude -- will receive a much-needed and much-deserved cleaning and restoration.
The New York Public Library’s iconic lions — Patience, left, and Fortitude — will receive a much-needed and much-deserved cleaning and restoration. Photo Credit: Raychel Brightman

It takes a lot of Patience and Fortitude to sit on Fifth Avenue for over 100 years, battling smog, tree sap and the occasional adventurous visitor who wants to climb on your back.

The majestic marble lions that flank the 42nd Street entrance to the New York Public Library’s Schwartzman Building have more than earned their monikers and are ready for a much-needed cleaning and restoration.

The $250,000 project is set to start the week of Sept. 2 and will last about nine weeks, according to library officials.

“We love the lions here at the library, they really are our mascots,” said Iris Weinshall, chief operating officer of the New York Public Library. “But they are out there in the cold and the rain and the snow … every seven or eight years they have to go to the spa.”

The $250,000 project is set to start the week of Sept. 2 and will last about nine weeks.
The $250,000 project is set to start the week of Sept. 2 and will last about nine weeks. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Caring for the beloved beasts, carved from pink Tennessee marble, is no easy feat. The library hires experts to evaluate the condition of the lions and then perform delicate work to keep them clean and shore up any cracks in their bodies.

The last conservation effort took place in 2011 and before that in 2004. It can range from cleaning and filling cracks to more complicated “dutchman” repairs that involve removing and replacing damaged pieces of stone.

“It varies really depending upon the weather cycles,” said Gerry Oliva, senior director of facilities and operations at the NYPL. “With the last couple of winters that we’ve had, we noticed more deteriorations.”

Buses and cars belching exhaust fumes are another stress on the lions. That dirt can hasten deterioration of the marble, Oliva said.

Natural fissures in the stone can also be exacerbated by rain and wind.

Gerry Oliva, senior director for facilities and operations at the New York Public Library, said laser cleaning "allows us to clean the stone without damaging it."
Gerry Oliva, senior director for facilities and operations at the New York Public Library, said laser cleaning "allows us to clean the stone without damaging it." Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

“If it just gets cold and stays cold, it really doesn’t affect them,” he said. “It’s when we get a day in the 50s and then a day in the 20s.”

The lions are as iconic as the grand Beaux-Arts landmark building they guard. Housed on the site of the former Croton Reservoir, the library took 16 years to design and build at a cost of about $9 million.

At the time of its dedication on May 23, 1911, it was the largest marble building ever constructed in the United States — three floors and over 10 million cubic feet, according to the NYPL.

The lions were never formally named, although they received several nicknames. Early on they were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, in honor of library founders John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. But it was the charismatic Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who found names that resonated during the Great Depression and remained relevant throughout the years.

“He said the people of the city needed patience and fortitude,” Weinshall said.

One of the New York Public Library's two famous lions, Fortitude, shows some of the strain of standing watch on Thursday at the famous Midtown location.
One of the New York Public Library’s two famous lions, Fortitude, shows some of the strain of standing watch on Thursday at the famous Midtown location. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Patience is on the south side of the entrance, while Fortitude sits sentry on the north. Both will be shielded in protective plywood enclosures for several weeks as crews carefully employ laser cleaning and inject grout into some larger cracks.

“Laser cleaning instead of steam allows us to clean the stone without damaging it,” said Oliva. “It also lasts longer than steam.”

The project is being funded with a grant from The New York Life Foundation as well as donations from library patrons and others. WJE Engineers and Architects conducted the assessment and Integrated Conservation Contracting is slated to handle the cleaning and restoration work.

Over the years, the lions have been festooned with top hats, Mets and Yankees caps and other decorations to celebrate holidays and unique New York moments. But the library has put a stop to all of that, save the wreaths they wear for the holiday season.

And Oliva said those wreaths contain no metal or other substances that could damage the lions.

Patience and Fortitude have also served as the library system’s most enduring symbols, appearing on tote bags, bookends and other items as well as being the subject of several books and fundraising pleas.

“They really are so iconic,” Weinshall said. “They are just so New York.”

Lisa L. Colangelo