Chicago’s Art Institute lions get steamed, waxed and cleaned

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The lions are headed to the spa. The dinosaur went to the dumpster. It’s been a hectic week for iconic animals in Chicago.

Conservators lifted the Chicago Art Institute’s famous Michigan Avenue lions from their plinths and loaded them onto a truck for planned maintenance Tuesday morning. And closer to Lake Michigan, the Brachiosaurus cast lording over DuSable Lake Shore Drive at the Field Museum was disassembled and discarded Monday after a routine inspection revealed severe damage.

The Art Institute’s lions are set to get a statue-spa treatment. They’ll be high-pressured steamed, checked for corrosion and given a hot wax.

“They have a very dry look right now. The green will still be there, but it’ll look richer and possibly darker, just more lustrous,” Art Institute objects conservator Rachel Sabino said.

The lions should go back up in mid-July. They’re in good shape, Sabino said, but 128 years outside can make you dirty. Hard-hatted conservators hooked up yellow straps between their oxidized, albeit stately paws and used a crane to hoist the metal felines.

Traffic stopped and the bronze statues, crafted by self-taught artist Edward Kemeys in 1893 for the first Chicago World’s Fair, soared through the air, twisting to face one another on a long flatbed truck as they landed. They’ll head to Forest Park for their “first deep cleaning in decades,” Sabino said.

Alan Robinson walked from the South Loop to see the show. He wished he could’ve seen the lions riding down the highway.

“I think there’ll be a lot of surprised people who pass this truck,” said Robinson, who often takes visitors to see the lion duo when working as a Chicago greeter. “They’re iconic. Having them move, it’s just really cool.”

The north lion, “on the prowl,” went first. The 5,100-pound south lion, its tail curled up to suggest it is on guard, flew last. Egla Hassan showed up just seconds after the south lion, “in an attitude of defiance,” touched down.

“I didn’t know they were going to be moved. I didn’t know they could be moved,” Hassan said. She had visited the Art Institute Monday while on a trip from Texas to decide whether or not she’ll move to Chicago.

“I thought I’d take a picture, and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why is he on a semi?’ ”said Hassan, who cited the museum as a top reason she might relocate.

While the lions will be pampered, the Field Museum’s outdoor Brachiosaurus cast seems to be heading back toward extinction. This time, though, it wasn’t a giant meteor that did the dinosaur in.

Museum officials said severe damage, cracking and rust discovered during a routine inspection made it necessary to take the “long-necked herbivore” down Monday.

“Chicago winters have taken their toll,” museum spokesperson Bridgette Russell said. The museum will explore having another cast made for the same spot.

The fossil the cast comes from was discovered in 1900 by the museum’s first paleontologist, Elmer Riggs, a tweet shared by the museum said.

On Tuesday, the Brachiosaurus’ giant gray bones were just barely jutting out from a metal dumpster next to the spot where it had watched millions of cars pass on Lake Shore Drive since 1999.

But in some sense, the towering dinosaur will live on. The steel that held the massive cast together will be recycled, and another cast still stands at O’Hare International Airport, Russell said.

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Twitter @jakesheridan_



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