Art Institute’s famous lions head out for a deep cleaning

The lions, each weighing more than 2 tons, will be gone for about a month, Art Institute staff said.

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Workers remove the colossal bronze lions from their pedestals in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday. The lions are heading to Forest Park for their first deep cleaning in 21 years.

Workers remove the colossal bronze lions from their pedestals in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday. The lions are heading to Forest Park for their first deep cleaning in 21 years.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The late-morning shadows melted across its regal face, revealing a knitted brow and jaws slightly apart — as though the 4,200-pound bronze lion were considering a roar of protest.

Men in hard hats huddled at the lion’s feet, positioning straps and blankets just so — and then shifting them again.

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“It seems weird that the same blankets used to move my couch from apartment to apartment are being used to move 120-year-old lions,” said Tommy Henry, who lives in the Lincoln Square neighborhood and has a podcast called “Chicago History.”

Henry was one of about two dozen people who stopped Tuesday morning to watch a telescoping crane hoist the Art Institute of Chicago lion guardians onto a flatbed truck to be taken away for their first deep cleaning in 21 years.

A crew with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio works Tuesday morning to remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance for conservation treatment.

A crew with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio works Tuesday morning to remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance for conservation treatment.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“They don’t seem to know how to do it — they’re fumbling around with it,” said one passerby, who wouldn’t give her name, but who boasted of having a background in construction.

In truth, the yellow straps used to lift the lions looked a tad flimsy.

But when the first giant cat rose from its granite pedestal, it did so without a wobble or a shudder. The lion appeared to hover in Tuesday’s shimmering heat as it was maneuvered onto the truck.

Some of the Art Institute staff clapped politely.

“Well, see, I was wrong,” said the naysayer, before wandering off. “It went off without a hitch.”

A time capsule was removed from beneath each lion — one that museum experts knew to expect, the other a surprise. There were also scattered cigarette butts, some corroded Indian head pennies and a crumpled photograph of a young man with the words beneath that read: “In loving memory of Mark A. Gorman,” who died in 2016.

“Very smooth — they made it look easy,” said Rachel Sabino, the institute’s director of objects and textiles conservation, after the operation wrapped up.

The lions are expected to be gone for about a month. They’ll be taken to a facility in Forest Park where they’ll be steam cleaned and then coated with a wax preservative. Weighing more than two tons each, the lions have stood guard at the Art Institute since May 1894.

When they return, they won’t be stripped of their distinctive copper patina.

“They still will be green, but it might be a bit richer [in color],” Sabino said.

Onlookers watch as a crew works Tuesday morning to remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions for conservation treatment.

Onlookers watch as a crew works Tuesday morning to remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions for conservation treatment.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions for conservation treatment Tuesday morning.

Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions for conservation treatment Tuesday morning.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance for conservation treatment on Tuesday.

Workers with the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions, bronze sculptures made in 1893 by Edward Kemeys, from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance for conservation treatment on Tuesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Workers remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance Tuesday morning for conservation treatment.

Workers remove the Art Institute of Chicago’s lions from the front steps of the museum’s Michigan Avenue entrance Tuesday morning for conservation treatment.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The bronze lions sit on a flatbed truck, after being removed from their pedestals in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday. The lions are heading to Forest Park for their first deep cleaning in 21 years.

The bronze lions sit on a flatbed truck, after being removed from their pedestals in front of the Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday. The lions are heading to Forest Park for their first deep cleaning in 21 years.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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