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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Freshly restored, the lion and the unicorn are back – with a new time capsule, of course.

Restoration of Lion and Unicorn Statues, Old State House

October 20th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

The following is part eight of a series of posts that provides a behind-the-scenes look into each of the ten projects that will be honored at the Boston Preservation Alliance’s 2015 Preservation Achievement Awards.

Want to know more about the history of the Old State House in downtown Boston? No problem – just click on one of the many online resources available from the site’s caretakers, The Bostonian Society. The Bostonian Society has also overseen numerous preservation efforts of the historic landmark, including the restoration of the lion and unicorn statues that watch over State and Devonshire Streets.

Before, Bostonian Society, Lion 2

After, Bostonian Society, Lion

Third time’s a charm

Did you know that the statues you see today are actually the Old State House’s third set? The first ones were installed at the time of the building’s construction in 1713, but torn down and burned in 1776 – as the lion and unicorn are symbols of the British crown – and weren’t returned the building until the first restoration in 1882. However, within a half a dozen years they began to decay. The current statues were constructed out of copper over a steel armature, with gilding on the lion and palladium on the unicorn.

The Bostonian Society partnered with Skylight Studios to complete the restoration. “The gilded surface of the statues weathers just like paint does,” noted Bob Shure, sculptor and president of Skylight Studios. Shure and his team redid the statues’ surfaces with gold leaf for the lion and palladium for the unicorn, which is more durable than silver. “You have to make sure the surface is 100% clean, and it’s necessary to strip previous coatings. The process is called oil gilding – we brush a special varnish on certain parts at one time. The metal leaf comes in very thin sheets, which is kind of like aluminum foil, but thinner and more delicate,” Shure explained. The entire process took about three months.

About that time capsule…


The recently restored lion and unicorn statues have been returned to their place atop the Old State House.

During the restoration of the statues, Bostonians were captivated by the time capsule that was found in the lion’s crown. You may remember that that the time capsule was an unexpected find. The Bostonian Society received a letter form the descendants of some of the original workmen, who wanted to know if there was any truth to the story they’d grown up hearing. “It caught us a bit off guard,” Bostonian Society Director Brian LeMay told us. “We did some research, and found a 1903 article about the installation of the time capsule.” They decided to follow the lead. Skylight Studios also played a role in retrieving the capsule, melting the solder in the seam that fits the lion’s crown to its head and executing the capsule’s removal.

The rousing enthusiasm across Boston (and the world!) demonstrated that people do feel a deep connection to the past, and that includes the buildings around them. In speaking about the restoration of the statues and the Old State House, LeMay expressed hope that passersby would continue to actively appreciate and enjoy the building. “It’s become so familiar that it’s faded into the background of people’s minds – people assume that the buildings like [the Old State House] will always be there.” We share this sentiment in that historic preservation doesn’t happen “on its own.” Rather, it’s an active process. Without planning, passion and care, it’s impossible to achieve.

For additional information about the Lion and the Unicorn restoration, click here.
For additional information about the Preservation Achievement Awards, click here.

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