Newly sculpted lions stand guard over historic Dollar Bank

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Nearly 100 people gathered Wednesday morning to pay homage to the new Kings of Fourth Avenue.

Nicholas Fairplay, the Englishman who sculpted a new pair of male lions outside the entrance to Dollar Bank, received lots of kudos after the 10 a.m. unveiling.

"The guy did an absolutely fabulous job," said Brian Bradley, a descendant of Max Kohler, who carved the original pair of lions on site in 1871.

Mr. Bradley, who lives in the Westmoreland County community of Adamsburg, was among 20 Kohler descendants to attend the ceremony.

Buffeted by more than a century of harsh weather, acid rain and air pollution, the original lions began deteriorating.

Then in September 2009, Downtown's favorite pets were removed and sent to Oberlin, Ohio for restoration at the McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory. Since 2012, they have reposed inside the elegant interior of the bank, which has spent the past four years restoring its historic Downtown offices.

Dollar Bank opened its doors in 1855 as a mutual savings bank and immigrants flocked to its counters. The Fourth Avenue bank holds the oldest intact interior space in Downtown.

Mr. Fairplay, aided by his apprentice, Brian Baker, spent nine months carving each one of the new lions from Berkshire Brown sandstone imported from China.

At Mr. Fairplay's studio in Oberlin, the two men worked from two blocks of stone, each of which weighed 13 tons and had the density of marble, which made it much harder to carve. The duo used chisels as well as pneumatic, air-powered tools.

"It was really grueling," Mr. Fairplay said, adding that he and his assistant had to wear masks because red dust filled the studio. "All my white shirts are pink now," he added.

After Mr. Fairplay carved four marble lions for the state capitol in Utah, he insisted that he was through carving the king of the jungle. Joseph B. Smith, marketing director at Dollar Bank, joked Wednesday that bank executives went down on bended knees asking him to reconsider.

Mr. Fairplay, who grew up in the West Sussex town of Chichester, said he was told to leave school at age 16 because he is dyslexic. He sought an apprenticeship as a stone carver at Chichester Cathedral but was rejected. So, he worked there for free for six months while living at home with his parents and finally landed an apprenticeship.

In the past 39 years, he has worked in architectural landmarks all over the world, including London's Westminster Abbey and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. About 25 years ago, he replaced the nose and thumb on a 15-foot high statue of Queen Victoria that stands outside Buckingham Palace.

The original Dollar Bank lions served as the template for the new lions. A computer scan of the originals allowed Mr. Fairplay to build foam models. Carving the manes was especially difficult, he said, because there is so much hair and the detail work is painstaking.

"I'm just thrilled with it," said William Phillip Kohler III as he posed for pictures with his family in front of the new lions. Mr. Kohler, who lives in Parkersburg, W.Va., said he is active in a local historical society with his wife. He praised Dollar Bank officials for preserving Pittsburgh's history.

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Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published June 6, 2013 5:30 AM


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