Onward Debates: Was the Lion Shrine Renovation Worth It?

The new Lion Shrine opened to the public yesterday after an intensive renovation that drastically changed the area’s complexion. The mulch hill was replaced with a series of stone steps and synthetic gravel, a handicap ramp was installed, and various other landscape alterations were made as part of the 2012 Class Gift, which donated more than $50,000 to the project.

But was it worth changing a 73-year-old landmark that generations of Penn Staters have come to know? Two of our writers debate the issue in this semester’s first edition of Onward Debates.

New Shrine is Awesome: Julia Kern

As I noted on Instagram, I, for one, prefer the Lion’s new digs to the former facade, which was basically an eroding plateau of wood chips. The fact that the iconic statue appeared to be sitting on a plot of elementary school playground never made much sense to me, both aesthetically and practically.

The Lion Shrine is one of the most (if not the most) frequently visited campus landmarks. Rod Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations, said it’s the second most photographed site in Pennsylvania, surpassed only by the Liberty Bell. The near-constant stream of visitors always appeared to be haphazardly assembled on the wood chips, and the new steps seem like they’ll make the waiting process much more orderly. And did I mention that the whole wood chip thing always bothered me? As a general rule, a major university and state landmark should not be sitting on something that little kids enjoy picking up and throwing around. I mean, I really would have preferred to be standing on solid ground while taking this important selfie with the Lion Shrine before a breakfast at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Plus, the beautification efforts surrounding the Lion could make it more of a legitimate place to spend time as opposed to just a place to go and take your picture. (Admit it, that’s the only thing you ever went there for.) Yes, the new sod that’s currently getting the heavy sprinkler treatment might not look so hot come February, but quite frankly, nothing else on campus does. (And the stone facade will still be there for people to enjoy, if Penn State decides to, yano, actually salt it.) Who knows, maybe it’ll be Penn State Girls’ new tanning destination on nice spring days when Old Main lawn is particularly crowded.

My only gripe is that the boulder edges are a bit excessive and reminiscent of a tacky backyard pool, but I think the logistical benefits far outweigh my aesthetic nitpicks. Now we just have to wait and see if American Eagle will update its problematic t-shirt accordingly.

New Shrine is Disappointing: Kevin Horne

It may sound like I’m an old curmudgeon, but just indulge me in some nostalgia for a minute.

I grew up only an hour away in Williamsport, so this campus was no stranger to me when I enrolled at Penn State three years ago. Consequently, neither was the Lion Shrine. (Proof: Flat Stanley and myself, circa 1999. I was a lot cooler back then, as you can see.) I didn’t realize it then of course, but there was something magical about the simplicity of the whole thing. When Heinz Warneke sculpted the Shrine 73 years ago, I don’t think he could have imagined the landmark — some might even call it sacred ground — that it would become. Indeed, you would hard pressed to find ANY Penn Stater who hasn’t snapped a photo with their arm around the thing.

It was, in a phrase, a true “symbol of our best.” It wasn’t much, of course — just a statue on top of an eroding mountain of mulch — but isn’t there an endearing quality about something like that? Isn’t that sort of modesty something Penn Staters have always held close to the heart, much like the basic blue uniforms our football team will run out of the tunnel wearing on Saturday?

I still get chills when I walk by the Lion Shrine. I would map out my nightly runs accordingly so I’d be able to pass the shrine with no one else around, looking stately as ever under the single spotlight. It was an emotion I couldn’t control, not because of how it looked or the landscape surrounding it, but because of what it symbolizes to generations of Penn Staters. A student today could talk to a student who graduated 50 years ago and the Lion Shrine is one symbol they share in common. In today’s thirst for modernity, that timelessness is difficult to find.

I walked over the new Lion Shrine yesterday morning and I just couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach no matter how hard I tried. Don’t get me wrong — the place looks fine. Aside from the base of the statue, which clashes with the actual Shrine and sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s an aesthetic improvement for certain. It’s also important to have a ramp for handicap access. But I don’t think it will ever be the same for me. The area just feels so scripted and manmade — almost like there should be a gift shop peddling Lion Shrine postcards and coffee mugs off to the side somewhere (don’t get any ideas, Old Main). It has lost the magic of simplicity. In this era of change, that magic is hard to come by.

I’m sure I’ll get over it. It is, after all, an impressive display. But I know that I’ll always miss that modest mountain of mulch. And I know that when my kids come to Penn State and I take their first Lion Shrine picture, something will be missing. At least to me, anyway.

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