How to create a habitat fit for a Nittany Lion

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As Derek Kalp and his colleagues in Penn State's Office of Physical Plant pondered the future of the Nittany Lion shrine, the most important thing to them was that it have a setting worthy of its stature.

Seventy years, thousands of visitors, and frequent repairs had brought the University's beloved shrine to a point where extensive changes were desperately needed to ensure its continued beauty and accessibility.

Kalp, landscape architect, and his coworkers in Campus Planning and Design considered that challenge for the better part of three years -- until the University's Class of 2012 stepped up and made a gift to improve the existing shrine and its surroundings.

A careful design process -- informed by historical research -- was initiated, using sketches, photos and clay models to better understand the impacts of proposed changes. After input from the class gift committee and University administration, Physical Plant’s Design Services group then prepared the technical drawings needed to move forward with construction.

At last, the spring of 2013 saw the shrine -- originally a gift from the class of 1940 -- surrounded by blue fencing as the area was closed for extensive renovations. It reopened in August just in time for summer commencement at University Park.

"Fundamentally, the goals were to improve the lighting and accessibility, but the larger idea was to create a better setting for the statue that was respectful of the symbol of the Nittany Lion," said Kalp. "We like to say we were creating a better lion habitat."

The Nittany Lion Shrine is reputedly the second most-photographed site in Pennsylvania -- surpassed only by Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.

To make that happen, the team needed stone indigenous to the habitat of the lion -- Tuscarora sandstone -- and lots of it.
Enter local stonemason extraordinaire Phil Hawk, with whom the University had worked with on previous projects, both on campus and in the surrounding State College residential area -- the class of 1992's "Pennsylvania State University" landmark sign located by Beaver Stadium, for example.

"Phil has a lifelong knowledge of our local stone," said Kalp. "He knew where to find it, he knew its limitations and its capabilities. He used every technique under the sun in terms of sawing and grinding and chiseling and pointing and tracing -- he works it by hand then hits it with a flame -- sometimes to the point that you don't think anything was ever done to it.

"I knew whatever we could draw, he could make it happen, and he would bring his own ideas to the project and take it to a whole other level."

Local artist is tapped to renovate Nittany Nation icon

Lemont Pennsylvania inhabitant and master stone mason, Phil Hawk has worked on long list of projects, applying his talents to create waterfalls, unique decks and facades. His work is remarkable. If you have ever been to Beaver Stadium at the corner of Porter Road and Park Avenue and noticed the the beautiful Penn State sign shrouded in stone, you can begin to appreciate his work. He was contracted to refurbish probably the most iconic landmark in the minds and hearts of all Penn Staters-- the Nittany Lion Shrine. Listen and watch as Hawk explains his approach to redressing this beloved Penn State landmark.

C Roy Parker

The lion crouches upon a stone outcropping, reminiscent of a high, mountainous perch, made of stone collected from Nittany Mountain.
Large stones and boulders invite visitors to sit or stand as they wait for their turn to take photographs; or to have lunch or study or simply relax.

Hawk collected the stone from sources such as private landowners and local businesses who were eager to contribute to the project.
Some of the stone came from Bald Eagle Ridge. The stone used for the steps that lead from the sidewalk to the statue came from quarries in northeastern Pennsylvania. Even the riverstone used to replace the mulch is from the Williamsport area.

In fact, the only stone that was not locally sourced was the single, 13-ton block of Indiana limestone that sculptor Heinz Warneke originally carved into the statue itself.

"Indiana Limestone is beautiful to carve because it is consistent throughout and perfect for detail work," said Kalp. "You see creamy Indiana limestone on the doors and windows of our historic buildings and even some of the newer buildings."

In order to create the new concrete support for statue's base, the crew had to excavate underneath the lion, where they were surprised to find the remnants of Warneke's original "detail work."

Kalp and the design team next had to decide what to do about the shrine's harsh, static lighting.

To have one’s photograph taken at the shrine is an essential part of the Penn State experience, so topmost on everyone’s mind was making sure the lion would be properly lit for photography. The Nittany Lion Shrine is reputedly the second most-photographed site in Pennsylvania -- surpassed only by Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.

Electrical engineer Blair Malcom reached out to School of Theatre faculty William Kenyon, associate professor of lighting design and head of the B.F.A. program in design and technology. The duo suggested the use of environment-friendly LED lighting to create a more dramatic atmosphere and advised on the best placement to enhance the features of the lion.

Theater professor lends expertise in creating atmosphere around shrine

Many have seen it. Austere. Stoic. Those words and others have been used to describe the Nittany Lion Shrine. If you're a PSU graduate, you should have a picture or two of you and the Lion in an album or a hard drive somewhere, but most are taken in the daytime. When university officials placed the initial lighting around the landmark, security may have been the overriding concern-- not aesthetics. See how physical plant utilized the on-campus expertise of a lighting design expert from the School of Theatre to recreate the shrine area.

C Roy Parker

The best part about the LED light fixtures, donated by Pittsburgh lighting supplier Repco II, are that they are adjustable, said Kalp. The color temperature and intensity can easily be changed, and different programs set, with a laptop.

"The first couple of evening hours are all about photography,” he explained. “The light is at a medium intensity so that there’s no need to use flash. Then from 9 p.m. to midnight it ramps up so that the light is more theatrical, more dramatic. From midnight to dawn it's for security -- everything's full tilt, 100 percent."

As important to the team as any other consideration was that the shrine be easily accessible to every visitor.

The massive, stone steps replaced the steep embankment of mulch and a gently sloping path curves up to the statue, accommodating anyone who might anticipate difficulty with the steps.

For those who like to get up on the lion's back to have their picture taken, that task has been made much easier by a few cleverly placed, built-in, stone blocks behind the statue. And a "nook" in the base, directly underneath the lion’s head, can accommodate wheelchairs.

The big pile of loose mulch chips that surrounded the statue also had to go. The mulch, which had replaced a grassy lawn in the 1980s, was an unstable surface that had to be replenished frequently. It also had a detrimental impact on the health of the trees: the nearest oak’s trunk was rotting, buried under a two-foot pile of chips.

The team replaced the mulch with a stable, epoxy-bonded gravel surface made of finely crushed riverstone. Once mixed with epoxy and leveled out, it cures in 24 hours to make a solid but porous surface which allows rainwater to flow through it. Kalp likens its consistency to a “giant Rice Krispies treat.”

Landscaping plans called for the lion to be surrounded by as natural a setting as possible, with primarily native plants. The team also wanted to integrate plants from Mount Nittany, but ran into a problem because the PH of the soil on campus is limestone-based and therefore alkaline, whereas the mountain’s soil is sandstone-based and acidic.

But the team didn’t let that stop them, said Kalp. The boulder placement created a large raised planter area, set in a curve of the steps, and landscape supervisor Jeff Dice, group leader Wayne Gates and the landscape construction crew brought in a few loads of acid PH soil to fill it. Then they planted a little mountaintop vignette of mountain laurel, lowbush blueberry, and fragrant roseshell azalea, all of which you would find at the top of Nittany Mountain.

The lion crouches upon a stone outcropping, reminiscent of a high, mountainous perch, made of stone collected from Nittany Mountain. Large stones and boulders invite visitors to sit or stand as they wait for their turn to take photographs; or to have lunch or study or simply relax.

White pine, flowering dogwood, redbud, quaking aspen and native shrubs such as flowering raspberry and witch hazel were planted among the existing oak trees. Perennials, including anemone and ornamental grasses, completed the display.

"The idea is to show as much diversity and variety as possible so there is something to enjoy all year long," Kalp said, "and especially during spring graduation, fall Homecoming and football season."

The final touch was the installation of an interpretive sign, requested by the 2012 class gift committee and created by University graphic designer and landscape architect, Kelly Harris. Visitors can learn the story of the shrine and of Joe Mason, a student baseball player whose impromptu declaration of the “dignified, courageous, magnificent … Nittany Mountain Lion ... fiercest beast of them all” established Penn State’s official mascot in 1904.

Nittany Lion Shrine in September 2013

The Nittany Lion Shrine in September 2013.

Image: Laura Waldhier

The Nittany Lion Shrine may be second to the Liberty Bell as the most-photographed site in Pennsylvania, but in the future as the shrine’s transformation draws even more visitors to enjoy its renewed beauty and greater accessibility, the Bell may have some competition for No. 1.

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Last Updated May 15, 2014