If there were ever any unofficial sentinels in The Big Apple, one would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the two lions carved out of Tennessee marble that guard the main entrance of the Steven A. Schwarzman building on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Most New Yorkers call it the main branch of the New York Public Library as it faces a key intersection in Manhattan’s street grid, and an important place in the city’s civic life.
What many residents and visitors might not know is that these these quiet guards have a name, with a story behind it. The one on the south side of the plaza is named Patience while the northern one is Fortitude and were given their monikers by longtime Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia during the Great Depression. Aside from busting slot machines and reading the comics over the radio for kids during a newspaper strike, the designations that he bestowed on them were his way of enhancing the quality of life for New Yorkers during a low point in Gotham’s history.
The same could be said about the building behind them as well. Designed in the classical style by Carrere and Hastings, the library replaced the main reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct system as it opened two weeks after the lions were dedicated in May of 1911. Around the same time, such gems as the Manhattan and Queensboro Bridges, Woolworth Building, original IRT subway stations, and Municipal Building were constructed as all of them enhanced quality of life for Gothamites and helped to unify a city that was consolidated in 1898. It’s not only a testament to their durability, design, and engineering that all of them are still in use today, but that many have undergone significant renovations in recent years to ensure that future generations will be inspired and have their lives enhanced by these civic structures.
In the case of the lions, as noted architecture critic Paul Goldberger put it, they are indeed “New York’s most lovable public sculpture”. With so many statues, monuments, and public art commissions scattered around the 5 Boroughs, his statement carries quite a bit of gravitas as it’s hard to disagree with him. Not only is a lion on the seal of the New York Public Library, but both have graced postcards, t-shirts, countless souvenir books, newspaper articles, and even been on the cover The New Yorker several times in previous decades. Never have they been ignored, neglected, covered in graffiti as they have silently kept watch over the city as it’s construction and reconstruction have continued unabated around the clock.
That was until two months ago. While they have not been forgotten in the midst of the current pandemic, they may be silently called to take on a new role during these unprecedented times. With so much of the current city and state leadership fiddling as Gotham silently burns, some have called for a New Deal-style of public works and construction in order to help with the long-expected recovery. While the lions were not a WPA or CCC project like many libraries, courthouses, post offices, artworks, and civic buildings that dot our republic, they have served as proof that a well-constructed, timeless, and accessible enhancement to the cityscape not only employs planners, architects, skilled laborers, and craftsmen through good and bad times, but pays back aesthetic and cultural dividends for ensuing generations.
There were countless instances over the years where I’ve gone by the lions before my shift or during it and have smiled as I watched kids climb up on them, tourists get a picture in front of them, or people enhance them via a cap, shirt, or garment from back at home. Even when I paid a visit the library steps last week, both were “reading” a book that made the 125 most-checked out list in New York Public Library history. Patience had Beloved by Toni Morrison and Fortitude had The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. While I don’t know what any of the other 123 titles are off the top of my head, it had me wondering what they were and what the idea was behind the campaign – which is what any good interactive piece of art should do to engage passerby.
So much of modern society is built on electronica, whether it would be the 5G Networks that stream our video, the screens we watch them on, or the continued miniaturization of the devices that are both in our homes and pockets. Repeated predictions of the demise of the public library have gone unheeded as they serve a more important function now then ever before. Whether it’s internet access, interlibrary loans, housing information for a prospective job search, hosting classes for kids, or the group conference rooms for meetings or lectures, libraries help to keep the social fabric of a community together in an age where more and more people are apart from each other and continually on the go. The relentless march of progress seemed to make the library as we know it as obsolete as carbon paper and typewriters while the current pause in society’s technological trajectory has made many question whether the 21st-century lifestyle is economically, ecologically, and mentally stable.
The answer to that remains to be seen. Two recent articles in The New York Times have gone into great depth to explain which neighborhoods New Yorkers have left from and where in the Tri-State area, and America, they’ve gone to as the city slowly starts to emerge from it’s two-month long lockdown. Whether they’ve relocated to second homes, relatives quarters, or have rented Airbnb’s is up for debate as well as whether the moves are temporary or permanent. Once the numbers from this year’s census are released, officials will have a better idea of how many people have skipped town for safety reasons and how many have left for good. No matter the final numbers, those who have stayed behind face a monumental task of bringing the city back from it’s first pandemic in a century. A lot of sweat, grit, and determination will be needed to get New York on it’s feet again and help the rebuilding process as thousands of small business are expected to struggle or go under while billions will need to be cut from the city payroll to balance the budget. No one expects the return to be an easy task, although Gotham has overcome bigger obstacles and challenges in recent decades. As has been seen during the Depression and in ensuing decades, a little patience and fortitude might be what New York needs to weather the storm…