Lions, books, and philanthropy

One of the most significant national treasures, the New York Public Library, was not created by the government but was a product of philanthropy. Hard to imagine, but there was a time when New York City did not have a library. By the second part of the 19th century, New York was emerging as one of the world’s most important cities with such paramount cultural attributes as Central Park, Metropolitan Museum, and Carnegie Hall. Still, it lacked a public library.

Built in 1911 and housed in a spectacular Beaux-Arts building, the New York Public Library is guarded by pair of lions called Patience, the south side, and Fortitude to the north. Named by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Patience and Fortitude reflected New Yorkers’ qualities needed to survive the Great Depression. But before the 1930s, they had different names: they were known as Leo Astor and Leo Lenox.

Leo Astor or Patience

Leo Astor was the namesake of John Jacob Astor. Astor arrived from Germany in the late 1700s with practically nothing and died in 1848 the richest man in America. His journey into prominence started with selling pianos and then furs and finally led him to the greatest commodity in New York — real estate. He owned a considerable part of the Island of Manhattan and died with only one regret. If you guessed that it was about spending more time with the family, you’d be wrong — he bitterly regretted not buying more of Manhattan. Mr. Astor was not known for his generosity, yet, he left $400,000 to establish a reference library that opened its doors in 1849. It had limited hours and did not circulate the books, but served as a resource for reference and research.

Leo Lenox or Fortitude

Leo Lenox was named after James Lenox, an American bibliophile, and philanthropist. A very wealthy recluse, he concentrated his passions and energies on collecting rare books and manuscripts. His collection of Bibles included the Gutenberg Bible and was on par with that of the British Museum. He treated his rare book collection almost as a museum and charged admission.

The person who didn’t get a lion was Samuel J. Tilden, even though his money and collection were instrumental in creating a public library. Besides not getting a lion named after himself, Tilden suffered another injustice. Running for president in 1876, he won a popular vote but lost the electoral in the most contended presidential election in US history. Upon his death, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune — about $2.4 million — to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

The money left by Tilden allowed combining the Astor and Lenox libraries into The New York Public Library — an unprecedented example of private philanthropy for the public good.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael Lazar says:

    Excellent as usual!
    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Thank you for reading! And thank you!


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