Walt Disney’s 1994 feature “The Lion King” remains among the top 20 highest-grossing films ever.
Lions have held a special significance throughout history and among civilizations, as evidenced by the abundant references to them in architecture, literature and commonly used phrases: lion’s share, lion’s den, in like a lion and out like a lamb, heart of a lion, roar of a lion, thrown to the lions and king of the jungle, just to name a few.
Although the lifespan of a male lion in its natural habitat averages only 10 years, the lion’s mystique in human culture and myth is eternal. The massive and distinctive mane, in conjunction with the angular facial profile and steady gaze, have made the lion a popular subject of paintings, carvings, sculptures, national flags, currency, Hollywood films and, of course, zoos. The roar of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Leo the Lion has remained the mainstay of its cinema brand for more than 90 years. That’s a definite testament to the staying power and allure of the lion.
Lions have long enjoyed a prominent role in architecture as well. Ancient Egyptians depicted the lion at rest. Greeks and Romans portrayed the lions as guardians, Christians used them to signify strength, courage and loyalty, and the Chinese, supremacy. Certain architectural styles are more likely than others to depict lion masks and lion head representations.
Lancaster city is a haven or “pride” for dozens of lion carvings, castings and moldings. The Lancaster County Convention Center’s 1898 Beaux Arts-style building, formerly the Watt & Shand department store, boasts 13 large, glazed terra cotta lion masks with varied facial expressions. Five years before L. Frank Baum introduced us to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” architect C. Emlen Urban adorned the decorative cornice of his 1895 Miss Jennie Potts Building (43-47 W. King St.) with 11 facsimiles that look much like the famous cowardly lion. Additionally, the former Stevens High School (now The Residences at Stevens School), a gold brick 1904-1905 French Renaissance edifice at the corner of West Chestnut and North Charlotte streets, is guarded by three ferocious, glazed terra cotta lions grasping iron rings and pendant husks in their teeth.
Careful and deliberate attention to small details reveals four carved stylized lion heads above the main entrance to the former Harold’s Furniture Store, 4-6 W. King St. This unusual example of 1921 Perpendicular Gothic architecture, now home to LancasterHistory.org On the Square, is worth the hunt to locate the fearsome four.
High atop the 1910 Hager Building, 25 W. King St., sit two lion heads protecting the shield of the Hager family from harm or mischief. How many pedestrians have walked past the pair of whimsical lions that flank the main entrance to 135 N. Duke St.? This 1890s Eclectic Style building disguises two carved lion heads to the left and right of the massive front door.
Ghastly lion carvings in the form of winged grotesques have been spotted on the 800 block of North Duke Street clasping shields in their clawed paws. Lastly, Reservoir Park is the home and hunting ground of the largest lion in Lancaster city. The cast bronze, water-spewing lion was the creation of Lancaster artist Blanche Nevin (1841-1925) in 1905. The thick, curly mane and quiet repose appear to tame the beast’s ravenous appetite.
Take a moment to explore and discover the numerous lion lairs throughout our city. There are many more to be discovered … and respected. Happy hunting!
This column is contributed by Gregory J. Scott, a local architect with 35 years of national experience in innovation and design. Email GScott@rlps.com.