Historic Centre Street Bridge lion sculpture welcomed to new home in Rotary Park

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An iconic Calgary lion sculpture now overlooks its old home on Centre Street Bridge it after it was installed in Rotary Park over the weekend.

Including the artist’s great-grandchildren, people gathered to celebrate the sculpture’s relocation on Saturday as part of Alberta Culture Days, a three-day event that aims to engage cultural senses locally.

Art combined with infrastructure when the feline sculptures by James Thomson adorned the Centre Street Bridge from 1917 to 1999. The lions were removed when the bridge was rebuilt during the end of the millennium. The lions that currently reside there are replicas.

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Of the four originals, one lion sits outside city hall while the other three were left to decay under tarps in the Mayland Heights neighbourhood. Eventually, enough people protested that waste of art and, nearly twenty years after retirement, a lion found its home on a precipice in Rotary Park.

“This one is sort of in, what we call, a state of arrested decay,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “We let it decay a little bit. We didn’t restore it. We put it out here as a symbol of the city and how things change.”

The city is working on a plan for how best to tackle the other two remaining lions in storage, which officials said are in worse condition.

Nenshi called the statue a tribute to the city’s past and future, with a lot of meaning to deconstruct given the location and representation.

“These are an important part of our history. They have to be preserved,” he said. “I love this — this lion is a sentry overlooking the city, bringing the idea of safety and good future into our city.”

“These lions were cast a copies of the lions on the famous Nelson’s monument in Trafalgar Square in London,” Nenshi added. “So they really are about our colonial history, our British history, but the lion symbol is very meaningful to Chinese people and we’re here in Chinatown.

“And I just love that juxtaposition of our British history along with the Chinese fact — Chinatown is over 100 years old — along with the symbol of the future of the city because we’re overlooking this magnificent modern skyline. This is just a perfect placement.”

The mayor said he’s thrilled to celebrate public art and keep history alive.

“It matters that people encounter it without going to a museum or a library,” he said. “It makes you think about community, about history, about who we are and to me, that’s a really important argument for why public art matters.”

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