The lions of the Centre Street Bridge have brought a European-style class to Calgary since they were unveiled in 1916 with two facing north and two facing south.
While these statues appear to be a constant in Calgary ever since that time, they have actually had an interesting and storied history.
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Originally, the huge costs of Centre Street Bridge meant that there was going to be no decoration of any kind on it — in the interest of saving money.
However, when a city alderman discovered that a beautiful stone lion in front of a home in the northwest was built by a Scottish stonemason named James L Thompson, who worked as a city labourer, it was decided that he would be temporarily reassigned to create lions for the bridge.
Thompson decided to model the cats after bronze lions found at the base of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, and spent the winter of 1916 in a shed near the bridge working on his 12,600-kilogram sculptures.
Not only did he create the lions, but Thompson sculpted the ornaments around the lions with imagery to pay respects to the city’s background, with roses for England, shamrocks for Ireland, thistles for Scotland, maple leaves for Canada, and bison heads for the west.
Since their unveiling, the Centre Street lions have been exposed to Calgary’s harsh freeze-thaw cycles and near-constant vibration from street traffic. This has caused them to become more and more fragile with each passing year.
In 1992, the Centre Street Bridge and its associated statues became a Municipal Historic Resource, and the next year, the lions became part of the Public Art Collection.
By 1999, Centre Street Bridge was closed for serious renovations, and the lions were moved to have their condition assessed. After which, it was discovered that none of the original lions were fit to be reinstalled on the bridge, but that the southwest lion was in the best condition.
The Calgary Heritage Authority recommended to the city that this lion be fully restored and used to make a cast mould, which could be used to create four new statues to replace the originals on Centre Street Bridge.
The fully restored southwest lion now has a home at the entrance of the Calgary Municipal Building.
There are two more of the original lions that are currently being kept in storage to keep them safe from the elements. While still intact, they are very frail, so careful movement and preservation solutions are being looked into by the city.