A week ago, I knew nothing about either lion. A week ago, I also wasn’t trying to solve a mystery involving history, art and a recent photo that was snapped from a frustrating distance.
If you live in the District, you might have seen the photo, too. It appeared on the prominent D.C. website Popville about a week ago.
The image, snapped from under the 3rd Street Tunnel, shows a storage area with its front grate propped open. A lane, a concrete barrier and a chain-link fence separate the camera’s lens from the storage area, making it difficult to see inside, even at a squint.
A zoomed-in photo helps focus the eye, but even then, only a snout is visible in a dark corner.
“Does anyone know what these lion (and maybe t-rex) sculptures are doing under the 3rd Street tunnel?” reads a question below the photos.
I usually regret reading the comments on most websites. This time, I was glad I did. One commenter had a hunch.
“Absolutely serious on this,” the comment read. “Is it possible these are the missing original lions from the Taft Bridge on Connecticut Ave? After being removed during bridge repairs in 1993, the original lion sculptures were never reinstalled. In 2000, newly elected Mayor Williams pushed to have new ones produced and installed. As a new resident, the act made an impression on me. Though symbolic, restoring the lions was part of his administration’s efforts to bring the city back to prominence, showing that DC could accomplish things.”
It was an intriguing theory and suddenly I needed to know if that snout belonged to one of those lions. Could one of those stone giants really have been left sitting there, on the side of a road in a storage area, for more than 20 years?
In a column on July 18, 2000, my colleague Marc Fisher wrote about the effort to replace the lions, which were crafted by Roland Hinton Perry, the same New York sculptor who created the Court of Neptune Fountain that sits in front of the Library of Congress.
“The lions, which had presided over the avenue since the bridge opened in 1907, were originally removed for safekeeping in 1993, when the city began a reconstruction of the span,” Fisher wrote. “It immediately became clear that the accumulated effects of time, pollution and century-old engineering would not allow a restoration. The lions would have to be replaced.”
He quoted Reinaldo Lopez, the man responsible for studying the originals and creating their replacements, who described Perry as “amazing.”
“One of the most important sculptors in the United States, and he’s totally abandoned,” Lopez said at the time. “These are much better than the Trafalgar Square lions; those are naive. These have such a power. They are alive. But now they are in a tunnel under 395! Give me a break. They should be in the National Gallery.”
Or the National Zoo. Or the Smithsonian. Those two locations were also mentioned in the column as possible homes for them.
But nope. None of those places took in Perry’s lions.
That snout in the storage area, it turns out, does belong to one of them. And he is not alone. He has a pride, if not his pride (in the other sense of the word). Four lions occupy that storage space, a spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation confirmed.
It took a day to get that answer. The question it raises will take much longer to figure out: What now?
What should be done with four towering lions, conditions unknown, that played a prominent role in the city’s architectural history?
The bridge was one of the first and largest made of unreinforced concrete in the world, according to a publication titled “Bridges and the City of Washington.” The structure was also an expensive point of pride for the city. Before it became knows as Taft Bridge or the Connecticut Avenue Bridge, it was called the “Million Dollar Bridge.”
Those lions guarded it for more than eight decades before their concrete bodies betrayed them and began crumbling in spots.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts worked with the city to oversee the production of the replacement lions that now sit on the bridge. That white lion in the agency’s lobby is a remnant from that project. It is one of the quarter-size models that was made of the originals in an effort to figure out how to replicate them.
Thomas Luebke, the agency’s secretary, told me about the lobby lion when I called him to discuss my discovery and ask for his help understanding the lions’ place in history. He shared notes from meetings the agency held in 1999 and 2000 that give insight into internal discussion about the project.
They show that the agency was trying to convince the city at the time to use bronze or some other metal for the new lions to avoid the same deterioration the old ones suffered. They also cite the fact that Perry had originally wanted to use bronze but couldn’t because it was too expensive.
“The new ones will always be a reproduction,” reads a letter tucked in those notes from Commission Chairman John Carter Brown to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. “The repetition of a mistake is in no one’s interest, and preservation into the future should be the overriding concern.” (I haven’t checked the new lions lately, but hopefully they’re holding up, despite that warning.)
One note also suggests that the original lions might have undergone some work. It details a visit to the warehouse where they were kept and reads, “The old, full-scale lions were being repaired at the time so that rubber moulds could be taken from them.”
I asked Luebke what he thought about four old lions sitting in storage all these years. He saw two sides.
“Sometimes neglect can be a blessing,” he said. “It kind of keeps them out of the way and protected, and they clearly need to be in a protective location. On the other hand, it seems a shame if they are this original artwork.”
Fisher ended his column 19 years ago with a question for readers. It is now again relevant, so I will ask it of you:
“Do you have an idea for the old lions?”
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