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Mother Nature will continue to carve away at historic lions

Three stone cutters work on decorative details over the east entrance of the Wisconsin Historical Society building. Since their creation in 1899, the jaw of one lion (below) has eroded away, while another has lost its teeth. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

The lions aren’t weeping. It’s just the rain.

It slips through the second-floor balcony and rolls along the battered stone faces. It’s been that way for more than a century.

Every raindrop erodes the fury of those four guardians on the wall.

They’re supposed to be roaring at people who enter the Wisconsin Historical Society’s headquarters in Madison. Or maybe they’re just yelling for a little attention.

It’s hard to tell. One is missing its jaw, another its teeth.

One has sickly white patches covering its head. Or maybe the lion just turned pale because it didn’t make the cut for the society’s latest restoration project.

Those lions are the ruined remains of delicate craftsmanship.

Stone carvers from northern Italy created them in 1899, and, lucky for the lions, old-school masons such as those still are around.

Jim Schumacher, division manager for Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., hired those types of masons during the state Capitol restoration between 1990 and 2001. His team restored more than 100 stone pieces, many of which originally were carved by the same people who worked on the society building down the road.

The lions, Schumacher said, can be fixed. It’s a matter of finding pictures of the sculptures, sketching out designs and finding the original stone. The mason then chisels the stone to match the missing piece, pins it on the carving and grinds the seams to blend it in.

A missing lion's jaw (left) hangs over the entrance of the Wisconsin Historical Society on Friday in Madison. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

It’s as easy as that. But for now, it’s out of reach.

The combination lion restoration and balcony repair was an alternate bid for what will be an estimated $7.7 million project. The society building will get upgraded handicap accessibility, a resealed underground film vault, and restored balustrade walls and stone steps. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will get upgrades to an underground tunnel.

The lions get nothing.

The state rejected bids on that alternate because, ranging from $145,000 to $414,000, they were too high. If the money is around, the lions might get their facelifts in a year or two.

Schumacher, whose company has nothing to do with the society project, said he had a greater appreciation for old buildings and old sculptures since his work on the Capitol, but he understood the reality of budgets.

“In time, we’ll get to them all,” he said. “It’s all about priorities.”

The lion didn’t drop its jaw in indignation. It’s just paying the price for patience.

— Chris Thompson

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