Thursday, January 26, 2012

The granite ladies of Broadway

The big stone cats recline and gaze eastward, as they have since 1925. Their view used to be more interesting: Streetcars rattling past a busy Parkview Drug Store at the corner of Broadway and Armour, with its rooftop Coca-Cola clock and billboard. The Pause That Refreshes.

It must be the formal siting – the two granite lions flank steps leading to the stately headquarters of Kansas City Life – that puts me in mind of more famous cats: marble ones (completed in 1911) outside the New York Public Library; bronze ones (1893) at the Chicago Art Institute. Otherwise the similarities are few.

Those older, larger, big-city lions were creations of American-born sculptors, animal specialists of national repute. The Broadway lions came from the hand of a forgotten Kansas Citian, a native Norwegian with an eclectic local portfolio, including scantily clad men on West Pennway and sphinxes on Linwood Boulevard.

Chicago's lions go by their sculptor's descriptions: "Stands in an attitude of defiance" and "On the prowl." The New York lions were christened Leo Lenox and Leo Astor, for the library's founders, but the names that stuck were Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's idea of New York virtues during the Great Depression: "Patience" and "Fortitude." To my knowledge, the lions of Broadway are nameless.

And unlike their manly celebrity cousins, the Broadway lions are, well, lionesses. Mirror-image symbols of "maternal protection," according to Kansas City Life, for which they serve as corporate logo. 

The lionesses went to their pedestals on April 6, 1925. The day before, a Kansas City Star article revealed their ultimate distinction. "Jorgen C. Dreyer, the sculptor, used the lions at the zoo for his models," the article said. "He went there often, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes at night."

Almost 87 years later, the streetcars and Coca-Cola clock and Parkview Drugs are long gone. A lifeless facade now fronts Broadway, the result of an uninspired makeover after the building became a print shop. That shop is gone now too.

No matter. The big stone cats stare stoically ahead, waiting for their names.