Penn State History Lesson: The Lion Shrine

On Wednesday afternoon, this year’s senior class gift was revealed in the HUB. There were three options to choose from: a mural in the HUB, funding for Penn State’s counseling center (CAPS), and a mosaic featuring Penn State iconography. After the votes were cast and tallied, the winner was clear; CAPS was overwhelmingly the Class of 2016’s parting gift to the university.

And while I could write thousands upon thousands of words about how proud I am to be a part of the Class of 2016 and the decision we all made to help our fellow Penn Staters in need, I decided to do a little research about some past class gifts. There have been some awesome additions to Penn State thanks to its graduates — the frescoes in Old Main, the Allen Street Gates, the HUB aquarium. But none of these gifts are as iconic as the class of 1940’s senior class gift: the Nittany Lion Shrine.

That’s right; one of the most photographed places in the entire Commonwealth was made possible by a group of students! The story of how the Lion Shrine came to be is a classic. So classic, actually, that it’s the focus of this week’s history lesson.

Now before we get started on the history of the statue itself, I should mention how the Nittany Lion became Penn State’s mascot in the first place. After all, Penn State isn’t crawling with mountain lions nowadays. The Nittany Lion’s creation story goes back to the year 1904, when Penn State was gearing up to play the Princeton Tigers in baseball. One of the Penn State players, Harrison “Joe” D. Mason, was taking a tour of the prestigious Ivy League school. While he was walking through the school’s campus, Princeton fans began to taunt Mason. They cackled at the fact that Penn State didn’t have a mascot. Thinking on his feet, Mason quipped back that Penn State was home to the Nittany Mountain Lion, which “had never been beaten in a fair fight!”

The lion that Mason was referring to was actually a stuffed “Brush Lion” that was displayed temporarily at Penn State as a part of the Columbian Exhibit in Chicago. But hey, the Princeton Tigers didn’t know any better! So though the actual Lion wasn’t present at the game, he did his job. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Princeton Tigers, and would go on to defeat the school two more times.

After the game, Mason jokingly proposed the Nittany Lion as the school’s official mascot in a student-run humor magazine called The Lemon. Due to the success of Mason’s article, the school decided to make it official, and named the Nittany Lion Penn State’s official mascot.

Let’s jump forward a few years to 1939. That year, Penn State students were incredibly proud of their school’s football team. So proud, in fact, that they decided to display their passion for Penn State in some rambunctious ways. According to an alumni newspaper from 1942, riots after football games were a common occurrence. These riots often turned violent and destructive; one had such a negative impact on the campus that student leaders were forced to meet with the administration to try to put an end to Penn State’s misplaced prideful energy.

It was during this meeting that the idea of an emotional center for Penn State pride was brought up. After all, a set place on campus for students to organize pep rallies and celebrate attending one of the best universities in the world would surely make the student body more civilized. Plus, the Nittany Lion’s creator himself had been advocating for an on-campus tribute to the Nittany Lion for some time. According to that same alumni news article, Joe Mason had always wanted a “permanent statue of a lion” for Penn State’s campus.

A group of students formed a committee to make this permanent statue a reality. They ended up raising $5,340 for the statue, according to The Nittany Lion: An Illustrated Tale. That amount of money was sizable back then, so the gift committee was able to hire a sculptor to create the Nittany Lion statue.

Two artists expressed interest, according to a Daily Collegian article from January 9, 1940: Heinz Warneke and John B. Flanagan. The committee selected Warneke to create the piece of art, with good reason, too: Warneke’s artwork was nothing new on Penn State’s campus. His pieces appeared in the college’s first ever international sculpture exhibition in the 1930s. But more importantly, Warneke believed in the project of creating a Nittany Lion for all of Penn State to adore. According to a Collegian article from 1941, Warneke said, “I believe in the work the College is doing for the sake of art, and I will try to traditionalize the figure of the lion.”

So Warneke and his team got to work. Before the actual act of sculpting began, the piece of Indiana limestone that we now call the Lion Shrine had to be shaped. That job was completed by Joseph Garatti. Garatti took the massive piece of limestone and cut it down to within a half-inch of the size of the actual Lion Shrine. Garatti’s “roughing out” of the Lion Shrine is often overlooked in the statue’s history. But his job was an incredibly difficult one; according to a Collegian article from October 24, 1942, Garatti’s work took four months. Without it, Warneke would not have been able to create the masterpiece we all know and love. The Lion Shrine would have simply been a huge slab of limestone in the middle of campus!

Nittany_Lion_Shrine (1)
The Indiana limestone arriving on campus (Photo: Penn State University Image Archives).

After Garatti finished his stage of the project, Warneke started to sculpt the actual mountain lion. Using a full size model of the Shrine, Warneke spent the next four months chiseling away at the limestone. Since the project was so large, Warneke completed the sculpture on Penn State’s campus. That meant students and the Penn State community could literally watch the Shrine being created in front of them. Warneke apparently loved it too. According to a Collegian article from August 28, 1942, Warneke said he was excited for students to take photos at the sculpture for graduation. Oh, if only he knew what was to come.

Warneke’s wooden model of the Lion Shrine (Photo: Penn State University Image Archives).

The Lion Shrine was completed in time for Penn State’s first home football game that year against Bucknell. It was dedicated on October 24, 1942. Warneke couldn’t be at the dedication ceremony, but he sent a letter wishing the university good luck. “Tell the students that I hope the Lion roars them to victory after victory,” Warneke’s letter read.

Nittany_Lion_Shrine (3)
Warneke working on the Lion Shrine (Photo: Penn State University Image Archives).

But someone even closer to the Nittany Lion was able to attend the dedication ceremony that day: Joe Mason. What started as Mason’s offhanded comment to some jerks at Princeton transformed into a massive limestone sculpture overlooking Penn State’s campus. Mason chose to tell the history of the Nittany Lion at this dedication ceremony. And though he may have coined the term, Mason was the first to mention that the first Nittany Lion was born well before he took that tour of Princeton.

“The origin of the Nittany Lion, which in truth, I cannot give you, as Old Man Lion was in charge over yonder on Mount Nittany long before Columbus discovered America, and likely fifty-thousand years before that,” Mason said.

Joe Mason speaking at the Lion Shrine’s dedication, 1942 (Photo: Penn State University Image Archive).

Since that day in 1942, the Lion Shrine has been through a lot. It’s seen thousands upon thousands of family photos, graduation pictures, and selfies. It’s even lost an ear or two along the way. But more than anything, the Lion Shrine persists as a love letter to Penn State from the Class of 1940. That class took a massive piece of Indiana limestone and created one of the university’s greatest treasures. They made something that improved Penn State as a whole, just like the Class of 2016 did this past Wednesday.

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About the Author

Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected].

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