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Lion in agony
An archival print of the lion in front of the Cotton Exchange, circa 1900

JAI CATALANO spent part of last Sunday afternoon shooting photos of two terra cotta feet, all that remains of the 119-year-old winged lion fountain that, until Saturday August 30, guarded the Savannah Cotton Exchange building on Factors’ Walk.

Catalano never saw the intact fountain. He and Vivian Bonvivane arrived from New York City on Friday afternoon for their first Savannah visit. Their self-guided tour took them to see the Bird Girl in the Telfair Museum and out to Bonaventure Cemetery. On Saturday morning, they headed toward River Street, arriving at Bay and Drayton Streets at about 11 a.m. “The car was just being taken away,” he said.

Early that morning, a driver had torn across the plaza at the Bay and Drayton intersection, smashing the lion to fragments, knocking out two wide sections of a 151-year-old cast iron fence and toppling a light fixture.

The New York couple returned with their camera just past 6 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. Bonvivane waited on a shaded bench while Catalano circled the fountain, shooting photos, moving around its edge for close-up shots.

Visitors in pairs or small groups came and went, stopping for a look at the yellow-taped crash site, speaking just loud enough to hear one another over the sounds of Bay Street traffic and the hot breeze rustling overhead branches.

Why was Catalano taking photos of a statue he never saw? “Because that’s where it used to stand,” he said. “I’m curious to know if they’re rebuilding it.”

Rebuilding is the intended plan, according to Glenda Anderson, Director of the City Library and Archives. “We’re talking about extremely painstaking, time consuming work, if it can be done.” Timelines, approval processes, and costs are not even at the estimation stage, according to Bret Bell, the city’s Public Information Director.

For five years in the 1990s, while working in an office on Bay Street, I walked by that winged lion fountain each morning and late afternoon. Nearly every day I passed couples, Girl Scout troops, families in front of the fountain taking photos of each other.

Once a little boy peeked through his souvenir Pirate’s House mask menu—with its punch-out eye holes, nose flap and ear pieces--while I obliged his parents’ request to snap a picture of the three of them.

I think about all those lion photos scattered across the country, preserving the fountain’s memory on refrigerators and in honeymoon albums in Atlanta and Ohio and Detroit.

Reading the news account of the winged lion’s demise was like reading the obituary of a friend. I wish that at some point during those five years, I’d brought my own camera to work and asked someone to take my picture there. Since I was too busy being a local, I’m left with these memories, plus a handful of postcards of the fountain, bought on River Street the day after the crash.

And, in a shop at the west end of the river, I purchased a copy of a turn-of-the-century black and white photo. In the background, thirteen men in bowlers and top hats stare into the camera from the steps of the Cotton Exchange. In the foreground the winged lion looms large, seemingly indestructible.

It’s hard to imagine a replica that will be able to measure up. cs