History Behind Lion Statues in House of Cards Opening Credits

Everyone is House of Cards crazy, and so are we. That’s why we wrote this post on Super Liquors, shown in the opening credits. We’re just waiting on the call for our appearance in season three. Beau Willimon and team, you can just email me at [email protected] to get in touch.

Have you noticed the great time-lapse shots in the opening credits of House of Cards? There’s a great one of a lion looking up to the starry night sky. If you’re good with local D.C. sites, you know that it’s one of the four lions sitting at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial by the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

Naturally, in true Ghosts of DC fashion, we’re going to dig up a little history on the lions to give you some great conversation topics for your next dinner party.

Ulysses S. Grant memorial in House of Cards opening credits

Ulysses S. Grant memorial in House of Cards opening credits

First,  a little about the Grant Memorial. The former president and Civil War general just missed out on getting a memorial bridge named for him, crossing the Potomac. We wrote two posts about that a while back, including some great old drawings of what it could have looked like. Well, he did get a memorial in the District, just not as glamorous as some other presidents. And now, Grant will be pleased to know that he’s been immortalized even further in the House of Cards opening credits, as his monument is featured prominently.

The memorial was authorized by Congress in 1901 with the total amount of $250,000, and 23 sculptors competed for the commission. The man who was selected was Henry Merwin Shrady, a self-taught sculptor, and interestingly, the son of the attending physician when Grant was suffering from throat cancer. Sadly, Shrady died just two weeks prior to the dedication in 1922.

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Back to the lions … on April 28th, 1912 — 13 days after Titanic went to the bottom of the Atlantic — an article in The Washington Post stated that the lions had been successfully put in place after the memorial had been under construction for eight years. Eight years and only the lions were in place! Below is an excerpt from the piece.

According to the contract the whole is to be completed in the summer of 1913. Henry M. Shrady, the New York sculptor, and Edward Pierce Casey, an architect of that city, are the designers. The statue of Gen. Grant, which is to stand in the center of the 200-foot structure, has not yet been molded.

Ha! … 1913.

We dug up another interesting article from The Washington Post, printed on April 2nd, 1916 (four days later, the Chicago Cubs played their first game at Wrigley Field).

Four bronze lions, said to be exact copies of those on the Trafalgar Square Lord Nelson monument in London, couchant on flags presumed to be the American colors, form a group on the Grant monument in the Botanic Garden, which is attracting much comment at present because of the un-American idea the lions convey by reason of their position over the flags. Although the group has been in position for some time, this peculiar feature has apparently escaped notice until recently. The additions just being made attracted closer attention, however from the casual observer.

The fact that the lions are copies of the British lions on the Trafalgar Square monument in England and the sight of the flag stretched under their bodes have caused many tourists and other observers to wonder just what the motif of the group is intended to express.

To an artist perhaps the proud attitude of the crouching figures might convey an air of heroic protection, but to the ordinary mind this same proud appearance might mean haughty possession, and it is this latter impression, probably, which has caused the inquiries raised.

The Grant monument, when completed, will be a notable addition to those already adorning Washington’s parks and drives. Besides the main section, on which the lion group is situated, one section, composed of an artillery group, and other wing, now being completed, will be adorned by bronze cavalry group.

The flags, of course, were metaphors for Grant protecting the Union during the Civil War (er, I mean the War of Northern Aggression).

Here’s a terrific photo of one of the Trafalgar Square lions. It doesn’t really look like the Grant lions are exact replicas of the ones in London.

Trafalgar Square lion

Trafalgar Square lion

One final article that we came across was a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, printed on April 28th, 1902 (on April 2nd, the first movie theater in the U.S. opened in Los Angeles, called the Electric Theatre). The author, Nat. Thomas, was not impressed by the selection of lions and suggested that Grant be represented by a different beast, possibly an elephant.

Of the quartet of lions surrounding the main group of Grant and his horse, two of them, “in the dejected havior of their visages” might serve a purpose as a study in therapeutics. They certainly look sick, and need healing. The artist relieves that monotony in his study of the other two, and need healing. The artist relieves that monotony in his study of the other two, and puts them in something like an attitude of prayer. it is fair to supposed that their supplications are for the two that are sick.

But what is there in the nature of the lion that he should be chosen to embellish a sculptured memorial of U. S. Grant? Naturalists are about agreed that the most there is to that overrated old feline of the desert and the veldt is a good-sized roar. To be sure, there are many men also whose roar is a pronounced feature of their make-up, but I never heard that characteristic was especially prominent in the man who never lost a battle. If the artist must employ a quadruped to typify the character of Grant, why not take the elephant, of make up a composite from several animals, wild and domestic, that are well known and might be mentioned.

Hmm, I do like elephants. The gentle giants of nature. But check out the awesome shots from the House of Cards opening credits below. The lion looks awesome and regal. No offense to all the elephants out there.

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Ulysses S. Grant memorial lion in House of Cards opening credits

Now, to close out this House of Cards history piece, we found a large number of photos from the statue’s construction and dedication. Check out a few of them below. Thanks again to the Library of Congress for their awesome archives.

Grant memorial in 1911

Grant memorial in 1911

Grant memorial surrounded by fence in 1911

Grant memorial surrounded by fence in 1911

Grant memorial in 1911

Grant memorial in 1911

Grant memorial lions in 1917

Grant memorial lions in 1917

And finally, one great photo of Grant’s statue being hoisted into place in 1920.

Grant's statue being put in place 1920

Grant’s statue being put in place 1920

I plan on wrapping up the rest of season two tonight! No spoilers please.


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