When Paul Wright first moved to the South End in 1972, it wasn’t long before he and his young boys found a mysterious granite lion outside 511 Columbus Ave. in the South End.
The lion seemed not to have a purpose, but had obviously been guarding the entrance to the grand old home for generations. He was a formidable sidewalk predator, and Wright joked that he would often put his fingers in the mouth of the lion and feign being bit.
His boys would love it, as would his grandchildren decades later.
But beyond the fun and games, Wright and others in the neighborhood wanted to know more about the curious and mysterious South End Lion.
“I came here for graduation school and we ended up spending most of our lives here,” said Wright, a Board member of the South End Historical Society. “When our boys were young we used to go out on adventures in the neighborhood. It was very odd to find that lion on the sidewalk, and especially in a residential neighborhood. The larger picture is that what you have in this kind of neighborhood is that everything has history.”
There had been a rumor that the lion was there because the founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus lived there at one time, which was only an urban legend that was given life when a rehab of the building in the 1980s emerged with the name Bailey Mansion Condo Trust.
The truth of the matter, Wright said, is that the South End Lion was put up in 1872 when Dr. Orren Strong Sanders built the unique home. A homeopathic physician of great note, Sanders was from New Hampshire and wanted to do something of significance in front of the house. He turned to New Hampshire granite, and had Giovanni Bettelini sculpted it. The home was also very grand and had been designed by well-known architect Thomas Silloway as a Gothic home that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the rowhouses.
Wright found an accounting of the lion in the Boston Daily Globe during that time, “Columbus Avenue is to have a new ornament in the form of a lion, carved from marble [sic]. It is to be placed at the corner of Greenwich Park, in front of the residence of Dr. Orren S. Sanders.”
Since that time in 1872, the lion has been guarding the front door.
Sanders lived and worked in the home until he died in 1898, and the fate of the house at that time is unknown.
In 1931, it had become an African American funeral home run by James Wright.
In 1934, an African American church began to occupy the home, called the First Church of the Messiah with female pastor Mary J. Moore. It was the Zion Fire Baptized Holiness Church until 1981, overseen for years by Pastor Ora Davidson.
Wright said that Davidson had a son, Lowell Davidson, who attended Boston Latin School in the 1950s and was one of the only black students in the school at the time. He was a track star and went on to Harvard University, later becoming a well-known jazz musician.
In the mid-1980s, a developer purchased the home and removed much of the historically inaccurate materials from the grand old home. With help from Landmarks, it was restored and became condos, which is what it remains today.
And the South End Lion continues to guard it, likely the only thing that hasn’t changed in all the years it has crouched on the corner.
“I thought it was interesting this adorable piece of art was there,” said Wright. “It existed well over 100 years and it’s going to stay. I’m glad I found out the story. It has become a little bit of a neighborhood icon.”
Thanks goes to the South End Historical Society and Penny Cherubino for assistance on this story. The South End Lion essay by Wright was originally published in the organization’s newsletter.