15 January 2024

Historic Utah Capitol Building Now on Redwood Road

Have you ever noticed this Lion in front of Ron Case Roofing at 440 S Redwood Road SLC? It is one of the original 4 lions that were installed at the Utah State Capitol in 1917 and restored by Ralphael Plescia (founder of the famed Christian School at 1324 State St) in 1976.

Lion in front of Ron Case Roofing at 440 S Redwood Road SLC (June 2023).

Lion in front of Ron Case Roofing at 440 S Redwood Road SLC (June 2023).

Lion in front of Ron Case Roofing at 440 S Redwood Road SLC (June 2023).
 
The 4 original lions were removed from the capitol in 1999 and were deemed too deteriorated for repair (but see below). The lions were sold at a surplus auction and Lagoon purchased 3 of them for about $16K while SLC business owner Ron Case outbid Lagoon on the 4th (and largest) with his bid of about $8K.

The 4 lions were sculpted in 1917 by Gavin Jack who had convinced Richard Kletting, architect of the State Capitol Building, that lions should flank the entrances to the Utah Capitol Building. He was awarded an $800 (about $20K in 2024 money) contract to carve and cast the lions in concrete, which were placed on the east and west entrances of the building.

Original lions by Gavin Jack at State Capitol Building, ca 1920s. Image from USHS.

Original lions by Gavin Jack at State Capitol Building. Image from USHS.

Gavin Jack grew up in Manti and had both art and engineering experience. In the 1880s he traveled to NYC and studied at the Cooper Institute and the Art Students League working with Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He also studied art and lived in Dresden and Paris for several years. And he worked with concrete during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Gavin Jack. Original creator of the Utah Capitol lions. Image from familysearch.
 
Jack was rather popular in his day earning many commissions, painting portraits of prominent citizens, painting for the theater stage, painting a mural in the old Manti North Ward LDS Chapel (now demolished), and did sculpture work at the Columbia Exposition World’s Fair. His wife Sarah was a concert pianist who had also worked in France and Germany.

In 1969 the State decided to remove the lions due to wear, but also probably because famed sculptor and founder of the University of Utah Fine Arts Dept, Dr. Avard Fairbanks, criticized Gavin Jack as “an obscure sculptor and have no value as art…there is no need to save them.” He further insisted that Gavin Jack was just someone who tried to do something with art; and, he mistakenly said that Jack had no formal training. Many members of the public, and famed local artist Mabel Frazer, pushed back on this opinion and defended the lions and Gavin Jack. Ultimately, the state quietly dropped the whole proposal and there wasn’t any money appropriated for any of it.

Plescia restored the lions in 1976. The Utah Legislature had appropriated $50K to restore the lions but Plescia convinced officials to hire him to do the job at a cost not to exceed $3K. Plescia’s restoration used a latex and cement mixture to restore missing parts a fill in the cracks. After studying other lion sculptures and visiting the lions at the zoo, Plescia decided to depart from the original lion design to achieve a more natural-looking animal. At the time that Plescia took on the lion project, he was 5 years into his Christian School project, which he called “the Museum” and was intended to be a restaurant with liquor and entertainment.

Raphael Plescia with a restored lion in 1976.  Image from SpacesArchive.
 
Raphael Plescia with a restored lion in 1985. From The Salt Lake Tribune Oct 4 1985.

The issue with the deterioration of the lions was renewed in 1999 when restoration work began on the Utah State Capitol Building and the lions were removed because of work being done on the steps. In 2007, 4 new lions were commissioned from British master carver Nick Fairplay who sculpted them out of Italian marble; they were installed at the State Capitol in 2008.

When the old lions went up for public auction in 2009, Capitol Preservation Board executive director David Hart was quoted in a KSL article as saying that at auction the lions might get “maybe a buck” and “they are of no value to us.”

But of course, between the Lagoon and Ron Case purchases, the sale of the 4 lions equated to about $24K, which is about $500K in 1917 dollars… so the state made a 99% net profit when accounting for inflation.

SLC business owner Ron Case outbid Lagoon on the 4th (and largest) lion. In a 2016 interview on Fox13’s Uniquely Utah series, Ron Case said he didn’t want the lion to leave SLC and that Salt Lake’s Westside was worthy of a “lion size portion of pride.”

The Lagoon Lions have been restored and are proudly on display in front of Cannibal. Ron Case gave an interview to Fox13 in 2016 in which he stated he does not intend to restore the lion as it is art and history just as it is. 

You can see the Ron Case lion on the west side of 440 S Redwood Road SLC. 

You can see the Lagoon lions near the Cannibal roller coaster.

Restored lions at Lagoon. Image from familysearch.

Restored lions at Lagoon. Image from familysearch.


Sources:
  • Lagoon buys 3 Utah State Capitol lion statues, KSL.com, Oct 9 2009
  • Uniquely Utah: The fate of the Capitol’s final lion, Fox 13, July 24 2016
  • Hobbyist is a fix-it man, Deseret News July 10 1976
  • State Will Dispose of Old Pair of Lions, Deseret News April 22 1969
  • State Capitol Sculptor Painted in Orangeville, Emery County Progress Feb 6 1975
  • The return of Gavin Jack: Paintings will grace library, The Manti Messenger Sept 4 1986
  • Capitol Guardians to Retire, 52 Years Erode Their Value, Salt Lake Tribune April 22 1916

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