Thursday, April 16, 2009

1879's Golden Lions

In austere silence, two golden lions confront a stream of students heading west. Several students walk up the steps between the statues, but no one stops to look. We're busy, lions be damned.

Two golden lions – gatekeepers of Wilson College. On most days, they don’t seem so out of place because Princeton is an insane kaleidoscope of gothic arches and tall windows caged in masses of shiny steel (obviously, I know nothing about architecture). What’s a couple lions?

When I first came to Princeton, the brick walls seemed to rudely jut out from the past as agents of immutability. In high school, I looked to Princeton as the future, as my personal gateway to a life of celestial, college-educated happiness. But many buildings were so old; overwhelmed by the sheer unfamiliarity of the college experience, I projected my fears on them. I thought that the ancient history of the place would crush me with antediluvian traditions that demanded respect, if not outright love.

But the lions know what’s really happening – they’ve experienced the campus’s fluidity for decades. According to a note written by Caroline Moseley for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, they were donated to the campus by the Class of 1879 upon its graduation. At the time, Princeton’s mascot was the lion. For 32 years, the lions – designed by Auguste Bartholdi, the guy who made the Statue of Liberty - sat in front of Nassau Hall. In 1911, they were replaced by the A.P. Proctor bronze tigers, which were also donated by the Class of 1879. Then, for about 60 years, the lions sat in front of 1879 Hall. Eventually, the lions were sent into storage because of vandalism and wear. Bud Wynne ’39 remembered the lions he used to see during his times on campus, and eventually had them moved to their current location in July of 1998.

Our mascot used to be the lion! But what’s even more striking to me, sitting by these lions, is that the campus physically changes like some insect in a state of constant metamorphosis. As I type, the lions look toward the Butler College construction site 15 yards ahead. Not far west is the comparatively neonatal Whitman College. The lions don’t seem so stern now – perhaps, they are afraid.

I can see now that the gold paint is chipping away, leaving cracks. I wonder where the lions will be when I come back, years from now. Maybe they won’t even be in the same place by the time I graduate. After a year on campus, I know it is clich├ęd to say that things move too quickly at Princeton. But these lions bring that thought to life, albeit in frozen, sculptured form. We often think that places don’t change and that, even as we grow older, we can always come back to our alma mater and reminisce about the places we used to haunt and the things we used to do there. But I realize now that everyday here will be a recurrence of our first day on campus because Princeton is change. It’s new for all the students who are constantly making discoveries in a place that seems like an endless chain of them. I imagine the faculty and staff notice the same thing; the place absolutely refuses to stay still. When I return here, decades later, the campus may seem utterly foreign.

I’m not saying that everything changes; I don’t think buildings like Firestone are going away anytime soon. But Princeton is an entity unto itself. It’s becoming a character in my life story, evolving, constantly moving ... as vibrant as many people I know.


Anonymous said...

"I can see now that the gold paint is chipping away, leaving cracks."

...and that is how the lions represent Wilson.

Anonymous said...

The Lion never made it as an official mascot


nor did our colors become Orange and BLUE(!) as championed by Prof. Allan Marquand, who argued that that combination was the colors of the House of Nassau and the Netherlands. [see NY Mets, NY Knicks].

For more on the ever changing nature of Princeton traditions, see

Anonymous said...

Great piece! Very insightful, and I love the ending statement. :)

Anonymous said...

i realized the truth of your last line.. when i accidentally came across a map of the campus from about 5-6 years ago... whitman and the lewis library were so conspicuous by their absence...