Residents want lions returned to their old den

December 19, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

There's an axiom that if you keep anything long enough it will come back in style.

Take the case of the lion fearsome foursome that guarded the old Calvert Street Bridge over Jones Falls. From 1879 through the 1957, these masonry mammals stood at the span's approaches, two at Mount Royal Avenue and two toward the north end (Federal Street).

By the 1950s, the lions dropped out of favor. When the bridges where they stood sentinel were replaced, these Kings of Beasts were reduced to the status of an alley cat. They were hauled off to the Baltimore Zoo, and placed in a storage barn for a decade. They were later moved to West Lanvale Street near Eutaw.

And now residents of the neighborhood they once so artfully protected want them back and restored as plans to rebuild the Calvert Street Bridge are on the computer screens.

"We've met with the city engineers and there seems to be no opposition if it doesn't cost too much," said Charles Smith, director of the Greenmount West Association.

Last week he visited the lions' present den, a small residential parklike setting on the western edge of Bolton Hill. Parts of the original sandstone compositions are missing, probably a legacy of their vacation at the Zoo when vandals smashed in some faces and broke some legs. The emblem of the City of Baltimore, which includes the Battle Monument, is also lost. As originally conceived, each lion's front paw rested on the city shield.

"The beautiful iron bridges the city built over the Jones Falls were works of art in themselves that showed off our neighborhood. The bridges were a grand entryway. When they were taken down in the 1950s, the engineers only gave us in return expressway overpasses," Mr. Smith said.

He is not sure what kind of diplomacy will be necessary to get the beasts away from Bolton Hill.

"I do think they rightly belong along Mount Royal Avenue at Calvert Street. That was their original home and where they were designed to stand," he said. There are three surviving lions in Bolton Hill. He would like to see two returned to their old home.

The Calvert Street lions were once the subject of a much celebrated municipal catfight.

On Sunday, Dec. 2, 1883, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., someone smashed the tails off these noble likenesses. The act was attributed to one Larry Finnegan, a professional Irishman with a mighty sledgehammer who claimed the animals reminded him of the British lion, the symbol of the empire.

There was a rumor that circulated among the Irishmen of the old Eighth and Tenth Wards along Greenmount Avenue that the lions were the work of Baltimore Anglophiles.

Finnegan was never formally charged, but the tailless lions were big news. Even the New York Times editorialized on the subject.

The Sun commented: "Had the tails which were knocked off been whole, it is thought they could easily be put on again by the use of cement, but as one or more of the caudal appendages were broken into several pieces, the task will not be that easy. It is thought that if the tails cannot be put on in this manner, others can probably be recast and put on."

City engineer C.H. Latrobe, who was directing improvements to the Jones Falls Valley, consulted with Baltimore marble magnate Hugh Sisson, who was then delivering marble for the Capitol in Washington. On Jan. 7, 1884, William Gisrael got the $110 contract for the new tails. They were made of bronze and, painted over, are still in place today.

By the 1950s, the lions were said to possess no historic or aesthetic value. The new bridges were modern and sleek and the lions were old-fashioned. There was a public outcry. The Evening Sun suggested a compromise -- build the new bridge but allow the lions to remain on the pedestals. Nothing came of this. They went to the Zoo instead.

Now someone wants them back.

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