Pittsburgh's Lions: The Stony Eyes Watching Over Downtown

May 29, 2017

Walking down Fourth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, it might feel like you’re being watched. And you are.

There are about a dozen pairs of eyes glaring down at the street. They’re made of gray and brown stone, some with intricate carved manes. Lions are a common sight on this stretch of downtown, and they have a very important job: to guard.

Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, or PHLF, executive director Louise Sturgess said Fourth Avenue was once “Pittsburgh’s Wall Street,” the heart of the city’s financial district.

“Lions protect what we value,” Sturgess said. “Lions show people who are depositing money in those very institutions that your money is safe here.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of banks opened along the narrow Fourth Avenue corridor. They were following money—oil, steel and natural gas were making millionaires and people needed a place to store their wealth.

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In 1908, Pittsburgh had 102 chartered banks and trust companies, according to PHLF. There was also the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange, which was founded in the 1800s and closed in 1974. Sturgess said at its height, Fourth Avenue was very popular.

“People would have filled the sidewalks, you would have heard different languages,” Sturgess said. “It would have been a hustling and bustling place and you knew that you were on an important street.”

Because business was doing well, Sturgess said bankers were able to afford high-end architects, who used the narrow street—only about 25 feet wide—to their advantage by constructing some of the city’s first skyscrapers.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA/PHLF

Within the architecture, lion masks, which are just the face, line many of the building’s facades. They’re each a little different, but each symbolizes wealth, prosperity and power.

The most recognizable lions are the full-bodied, lounging pair near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Smithfield Street. They’re the Dollar Bank lions and they’ve been guarding the institution since 1870. They were carved by Max Kohler and his assistant Richard Morgan and stood outside until 2009, when they were refurbished and replaced.

Dollar Bank multimedia production specialist Dorothy Spangler said the restoration was a big deal. The entire process for removing the old lions, sending them away and then having a new stone carver create replicas, is documented in this video:

The new pair is nearly identical and was carved by Nicholas Fairplay and his assistant Brian Baker in Oberlin, Ohio. They post in classical couchant and recumbent positions, or guarding and resting.

“(The couchant lion) is alert. He’s not in an aggressive pose, he’s really in a very watchful and majestic pose,” Spangler said. “The other one, we’ve actually put on some of our holiday cards because he’s the lion who’s very peaceful and friendly-looking.”

Spangler said when people go on historic tours downtown, she’s always asked if the lions have names. They don’t, she said, and they probably never will, even though children offer to name them all the time.

Steel beams underneath Dollar Bank on Fourth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh help hold up the original stone lions, carved by Max Kohler. The lions were so heavy, experts feared the marble floors of the bank wouldn't hold them up without some help.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Fourth Avenue isn’t the only stretch of Pittsburgh with lions in the architecture. Chris Potter, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who used to be the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paperwrote about several other lions in 2007.

There are lions guarding the Allegheny County Courthouse, some in the Frick Building and some hiding in the walls of older mansions in the East End. They’re a reminder of Pittsburgh’s wealth and power and ultimately, are there to protect.

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