On the south side of Hartford's Municipal Building
(city hall) on Arch Street are two wonderful lions that guard
the entrance. Lying on low granite bases, the lions look knowingly
to the left and the right, watchful of all who are approaching.
They have been in Hartford for 178 years, but just the last 93
years at the Arch Street entrance, for it is not their original
They were rescued after a city bureaucrat
insensitively sought to have them banished. Their original home
was at 803 Main St., on the roof of the Phoenix Bank.
Before the new state constitution of 1818, Connecticut was a
Congregational Church state. Taxes supported the church, and
it in turn controlled the schools, colleges and all charted
institutions. There was only one bank, and it was controlled
by the church. The Courant supported only church-backed issues.
The church's control had begun to erode by 1810. The state
was growing and becoming more diverse. The Phoenix Bank was
chartered in July 1814 and was the first non-Congregational
Church-owned and operated bank in the state. Referred to locally
as "the Episcopal bank," its founding was severely
criticized by The Courant as the foremost example of legislative
secrecy, corruption and speculation.
On March 18, 1815, the Phoenix Bank purchased a lot on Main
Street in Hartford, directly across from the (now Old) State
House. It erected a two-story marble building, the first in Hartford,
and had a great wooden phoenix placed on the top cornice. In
1827, the bank added wings to the original building, one on each
side, to create commercial rental space. The rents ranged from
$200 to $300 a year. The earlier wooden phoenix was replaced
with a stone one, and two life-size marble lions were placed
on the top of the wings.
The completed bank building,
with its curved steps and raised entrance, became a popular
place for speeches and announcements. Stephen A. Douglas, the "little giant" from Illinois,
campaigned for the presidency here on July 6, 1860. The bank
prospered and in 1873 replaced its earlier building with a "modern" one.
James G. Batterson, who founded The Travelers Insurance Co.,
was the general contractor. The new building had four stories
above street level and one below. The phoenix returned to its
place on the top, but the lions were placed on the sidewalk,
at the north and south ends of the building, looking toward each
other. In 1906, when bank completely remodeled the building,
the lions continued to hold court on the sidewalk.
At street level, the lions
became favorites for the kids to sit on. The Courant recounted
how children were entertained "by
fond papas with stories about the lions and the things they did
when everybody was asleep and nobody was around to keep tabs
on them." On July 17, 1918, that all changed when a city
inspector measured the street line in front of the Phoenix Bank
building. He determined that the lions were encroaching on the
line and ordered that they be removed immediately. A protest
was mounted in the lions' defense, but to no avail. Rules were
rules and the inspector would not budge, not even for lions who
had served the public so well at street level. The bank then
contacted the building committee in charge of the Municipal Building
to see if it could take the lions. The building committee graciously
accepted the lions for the new Arch Street entrance. The bank
gave them to the city with one stipulation: "If at any time
the city should neglect to accord the lions the respect they
deserved, they should revert to the bank."
In 1954, the Phoenix Bank and the Hartford Connecticut Trust
Co. merged, and the new bank was called the Connecticut Bank
and Trust Co., or CBT. It was the largest bank in Connecticut
and the fourth-largest bank in New England. CBT later became
Bank of New England, then Fleet and now Bank of America. And
there is now a new CBT. The Phoenix Bank building came down in
the 1960s to make way for the Hartford National Bank building,
now Bank of America.
It is not known who would
gain title to the lions should the city neglect them, though
they seem content on Arch Street. The Courant also once reported: "It
has been many times related, and never denied, that on New
Year's Eve, when the lions heard the City Hall clock strike
the hour of midnight, they regularly got up and changed places."
Wilson H. Faude is a historical consultant and executive director
emeritus of the Old State House.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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