The Unicorn and the Lion on the Old State House Are Coming Down for Restoration

The lion allegedly has a time capsule inside of it that contains some Boston relics.

With roughly 19 million tourists flocking to Boston each year—many of them trudging along the Freedom Trail—it’s important to make sure that two of the most photographed pieces of the city’s history are in pristine condition.

That’s why the Bostonian Society, the non-profit group that maintains the Old State House in Downtown Crossing, the oldest surviving public building from the nation’s original 13 colonies, will be temporarily removing the golden, courageous-looking lion, and the silver-toned, stoically-poised unicorn that sit atop the historical structure for some much-needed restoration.

“They have been there for a hundred or more years now, and we are taking them down to reguild the lion and re-silver the unicorn,” said Brian LeMay, president and executive director of the Bostonian Society.

LeMay said the animal restoration project, which also includes conducting roof and window repairs, and repointing masonry on the opposite side of the building, will begin sometime after September 8. He said the fixes to the two copper statues wouldn’t take too long, and weather permitting they’ll be back in place and secured on their perch by the end of the month.

He said the latest the reinstallation could occur would be sometime in October.

“While they are down, we will be putting signs up on their perches letting people know they have not been removed permanently,” LeMay said. “We will reassure them, like in a museum, that the item hasn’t been stolen.”

The statues, which have been weather-beaten and slightly chipped due to high winds funneling through that section of the city, are replicas of the original animals that were installed in 1713, under British rule, when the building was constructed and established as the official seat of government for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, prior to the American Revolution.

The original statues were torn down by revolutionaries in 1776, according to the Boston Art Commission, when the Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the building, which faces toward what’s now known as State Street. At that time, those statues were destroyed in a fire in the Town Square as a sign of rebellion.

It wasn’t until 1881, when the Bostonian Society was officially formed to preserve the Old State House, and it went through a series of restorations, that wooden replicas of the unicorn and lion were built and put back up on top of the building. Due to weather, however, those soon rotted, and by the turn of the century new replicas—the same ones now seen by thousands of people on a daily basis—made of copper and steel, and coated in gold leaf and silver metal, were put in their place.

Mounted on what’s referred to as the east façade, besides some very minor repairs applied to the unicorn statue onsite seven years ago, LeMay believes the animals haven’t been touched since around the time of the country’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

“During the Bicentennial they were reguilded and re-silvered,” said LeMay. “The unicorn was covered at that time with the brightest silver metal that could be identified, and the lion had gold leaf on him. The unicorn is going to get a new coating of platinum called palladium, and the lion will get a new gold leaf coating.”

The restoration will be done at a conservator’s studio in Woburn, he said.

The process will involve bringing in heavy machinery to lift the unicorn and lion from the corners of the building before they’re transported to the studio to undergo repairs.

LeMay said he isn’t sure how much the animal figures weigh, but he said they are life-like in size, despite how small they look from the city streets.

“They probably aren’t as heavy as they look,” he said. “The unicorn is about the size of a modern horse, and the lion is about the size of the unicorn, although, in my mind, a unicorn is bigger than a lion.”

While the animal statue restoration project is certainly an exciting aspect of the overall fixes the Old State House is undergoing, LeMay said he’s particularly curious about a longtime rumor involving a time capsule buried deep inside the lion.

He said, if necessary, the Bostonian Society will have an X-ray done to determine if there is any buried treasure inside of the statue. “We are going to see if we can find it,” he said. “It’s arguably one of the most important parts of American history that we all share to a certain extent.”

When asked what he hoped would be inside the lion, LeMay seemed unsure, but indicated that the materials likely date back to the turn of the 20th century. “It’s a good question,” he said. “We are hoping it’s vast quantities of money, but I expect it’ll be something like newspapers and official word from the authorities from that time period.”