Leo the Lion, the bronze sculpture that keeps watch from the Dayton Art Institute, originally was the mascot for a downtown high school.
The mascot, which stood guard over Steele High School at the corner of Main Street and Monument Avenue, was the brainchild of the school’s decorative arts department.
According to a Dayton Daily News article published at the 1908 unveiling, it took 10 years and a combination of fundraisers, including a monthly five cent donation from the students, to come up with the funds for the statue.
Sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt, an animalier, was commissioned to create the icon. She studied and made sketches of “Sultan,” a black African lion housed at New York’s Bronx Park Zoo, before creating a one-fourth-sized model.
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The artist, who donated her skills to the school, traveled to Naples, Italy in 1907, to supervise the bronze casting of the lion at a local foundry.
“I worked all that winter modeling the large lion and in March and April they cast it by the cire-perdu process exactly as it was done in the days of Benvenuto Cellini,” she told the Dayton Daily News in 1952.
“The place was lit only by oil torches. An image of the Virgin was conspicuous and during the crucial pourings of the bronze the excited workmen knelt to pray for the success of the pouring.”
Hyatt traveled to Dayton for the “heroic statue in bronze” unveiling held Dec. 11, 1908. She described her artistic process to an audience, the Steele High School band performed and numerous presentations were made.
“This splendid work of art, so suggestive of dignity, poise and latent power, will but prove to be another means of enhancing your loyalty and affection for your alma mater…” said John E. Eberhardt, chairman of the high school committee of the board of education.
The crowd of students and teachers, wearing red and black, the Steele High School colors, moved outside and into the street to view the campus scene as the new mascot was unveiled.
A rope tied to a tarp covering the sculpture was yanked, but it didn’t budge. A high school boy climbed up the pedestal and pulled the shroud clear displaying the lion to the throng.
“The beautiful Lion over which our banner floated, stood looking down…” wrote student Carrie A. Breene in 1923. “There was absolute silence for one long moment. Cars had stopped, citizens had joined us, all traffic was still. Then broke tumultuous huzzas from hundreds of throats and the crowds surged nearer.”
In 1913, raging flood water knocked the lion from its pedestal, breaking his tail and destroying the base he stood on. The community rallied and raised funds to reinstate the statue and in the fall held another dedication.
The mascot kept watch over generations of Dayton students as they entered Steele High School. In 1955, after the school had closed, Leo was moved to his current home perched outside the Dayton Art Institute overlooking the skyline.