Pittsburgh welcomes back historic Dollar Bank lions

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

They're back!

And there are twice as many.

The historic Dollar Bank lions — one lying down with a pensive look, and the other with his head raised high, who had kept guard outside the Fourth Avenue financial institution until three years ago — are returning after getting a body lift.

And, in the process, two replicas were created.

If they could, they likely would roar with happiness when they are unveiled June 5.

“People know about the lions, and they love these endearing corporate symbols,” says Robert Lodge, president of McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio, whose company restored the originals. “I love the expressions on them. And when you spend so much time working with them, they seem to come alive. I will miss them, but I am happy they will be back where they belong. I will be sure to come and visit them, and when I do, they just might wink at me.”

The 13,000-pound lions were removed in September 2009 by a 20-ton crane and placed on rollers to be taken to Ohio.

“It was a long process, but we wanted it to be done right,” says Joseph B. Smith, senior vice-president of marketing for Dollar Bank, who did not disclose the cost of the project. “It will be a dramatic return. I can't wait for everyone to see these lions. These lions are perfect.”

Most of the stone work was done by stone conservator Marcin Pikus who works for Lodge, whose company does sculpture conservation on stone and metals.

The restoration and creation processes took longer than expected, says Nicholas Fairplay, a master carver from Fairplay Stone Carvers in Oberlin. Fairplay created the replicas. He is an architectural sculptor who specializes in hand-carved stone and marble ornament. As a European artisan and master carver with more than three decades of experience, his design and execution of period styles is acclaimed as unparalleled. Projects include key elements of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral and Windsor Castle.

The lions needed repair, because brownstone can wear. The flood of 1936, acid rain and other weather took its toll. The original lions were damaged and covered with cement, which holds in water, and when it freezes, creates contour scaling, breaking away the stone.

During the chiseling, Fairplay says he would find himself covered in pink dust. He had to continually sharpen his instruments, because the material for the new lions — also brownstone — was so hard. He would often hit his leg on the steel the lions were sitting on. There were some pieces missing from the old lions, so Fairplay had to figure out how to deal with that when creating the new animals.

“The result is they look great,” says Fairplay, who will be at the unveiling. “I am impressed with Dollar Bank's commitment not just to the lions but to the entire building. They have preserved an important part of Pittsburgh history. The first time I came to Pittsburgh to do some work for Carnegie Mellon (University), one of the first things I came across were the lions, and I noticed that classic style of art. I was impressed by how many amazingly beautiful buildings there are in Pittsburgh.”

The refurbished lions were returned in February 2012 and have found a home inside the bank's Fourth Avenue Heritage Center, while the two new look-alikes will be perched outside.

Andy Masich, president and chief executive officer of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, credits the bank — arguably, the oldest Pittsburgh bank — for appreciating the history and going to great pains to preserve and restore the original lions, which are a symbol of the institution.

“These are the types of projects museum curators think about when preserving the cultural patrimony of a community,” Masich says. “There are lots of architectural features in our city that trigger fond memories like the lions and the Kaufmann's Clock and the Blockhouse at Point State Park.

“From bringing in your bank book to add to your savings account to being proposed marriage, that place triggers a special memory,” he says. “Those lions are pretty fierce and will protect your money at the bank. Even the one who looks like he is sleeping is just faking it. So be careful.”

The lions were originally created on site in 1871 by Max Kohler, a German native who lived in Polish Hill, and who is the great-grandfather of Janet Talik of Hampton. She and some family members will be at the unveiling.

“I think it is wonderful,” Talik says. “In this generation, if something is broken or outdated, we get rid of it and get something new. I appreciated that Dollar Bank saved the lions.”

On July 19 — the bank's 158th year in business — an event will be held with people sharing their memories of the lions.

“We are so enthusiastic about the return of the lions, because they are such a great presence in Pittsburgh,” says Louise Sturgess, executive director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which offers walking tours at noon Fridays in June that begin — where else? — at the lions.

“They mean a lot to the people who walk along the street and see them,” Sturgess says. “People feel a connection to the lions.”

Lodge appreciates that sentiment.

“I love these lions,” he says. “They will never have to go outside again. These two old lions need to stay inside and let the other two new lions stand guard outside. There will be a sort of changing of the guard.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at jharrop@tribweb.com or 412-320-7889.

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