Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

How The Lions Came To City Hall

April 24, 2005

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 home.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?