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Where Will Alachua County Place Its Historic Lion Statues?

Tom Thomas and his lions — before he began restoration work. (Aaron Abell/WUFT News)
Tom Thomas and his lions — before he began restoration work. (Aaron Abell/WUFT News)

Two copper lion statues once sat at the historic Alachua County Courthouse in Downtown Gainesville.

After more than one hundred years, they required a facelift, which artist Tom Thomas recently completed.

But now, where should the lions go? County officials have tentatively settled on an answer: one will go to the Matheson History Museum, the other to the county administration building.

Thomas, of Fine Line Architectural Detailing LLC, restored the copper statues at his Micanopy studio. The courthouse was built in the 1890s and demolished in 1958. The lions were salvaged before demolition.

They were moved to many places, resting most recently in front of the public works department.

There they sat and decayed over the decades. Thomas earned $3,085 from the county for his month-long restoration on the 75-inch-long statues; the cost to fully restore the lions and put them on display could surpass that due to the county's plans to properly display the statues.

The county has drawn up a two-year loan agreement with the Matheson, which its board will soon review. The other will go to the first floor of the county administration building. The County Commission intends for these locations to be temporary and wants the historical commission to review their permanent viability toward the end of 2016.

For now, the county commission's thinking differs with that of the historical commission, an advisory board that makes suggestions to the county. The historical commission wanted the statues to be moved to a permanent, secure location on county owned property where they aren’t in danger of being damaged. They feel that both lions should be displayed on county property rather than have one in a privately owned museum.

“We made a recommendation to the county commission and they ignored that,” said Pat Moore, historical commission member and chair of its subcommittee tasked with finding homes for the lions.

Thomas shared the historical commission's concerns; he wants them in a place where they won't be damaged but either humans or weather. When the lions arrived in his studio, the artist said, they were in bad shape. The bracing inside the lion was broken, the tail and front paws were severed on one lion, and cracks and dents pockmarked the entire statue.

One lion even suffered a few bullet holes — a reminder of a time when people would shoot at the courthouse facade if they didn’t like a legal ruling.

Thomas said he poured a lot of time, work, and love into the lions’ restoration. He wants to see their historical value, as well as his handwork protected.

“I’m nervous as can be about them leaving my shop,” Thomas said. “They’re like my children now. I want to be careful with them.”

Aaron is a reporter for WUFT News. Reach him by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
University of Florida Journalism student, sports fan to the core, nerdy at heart.