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May 13

Tale of Two Lions

Posted on May 13, 2022 at 9:31 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

Did you know Las Cruces has two lions named E.J. and Mabel? They sit tirelessly guarding the entrance into City Hall, Albert Johnson Park, and the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, and graciously wear hats or scarves placed on them occasionally by well-meaning individuals. The lions are also the City’s first sculptures on record in our public art collection.

The beautiful bronze lion sculptures, located at the entrance of 700 N. Main Street, were donated in 1968 by local entrepreneur, farmer, and philanthropist Eugene J. Stern. Mr. Stern (or E.J.) had seen a pair of similar lions on a trip to Mexico, and 23 years later, E.J. commissioned Mexican artist Señior Modesto Barrios Caballero for a similar pair to donate to the City. The art commission totaled $25,000. The lions were officially presented on August 9, 1968 and placed on the porticos on either side of the then new city hall building on Church Street, serving as guardians of the building. 

Eugene J. Stern sitting on base of City Hall Lion. Photo Credit: jmaw.org

Street view of former City Hall on Church Street with lion sculptures in front. Photo: The Paper

Top photo: E.J. Stern with City Hall lion. Photo Credit: JMAW.org  Bottom photo: Lions guarding old City Hall. Photo credit: The Paper (Albuquerque)

In 2010, when the City of Las Cruces completed the current City Hall facility, several different locations were considered for relocating the lions before City Council decided the northwest entrance to City Hall was best. It provided a grander gateway, not only to the new City Hall, but also to the library and Johnson Park as well. It also created a deeper sense of place to the entire site and functions as a landmark for the public. 

But get this – until the move to their current home -- the lions didn’t have names. People referred to them as the City Hall Lions or the Stern Lions maybe or, as I used to call them when I was a kid playing on them while my mom was paying bills, the Fun Lions. When the City moved the bronze lions to their new home, it was decided it was time to give them a name. The public was invited to suggest possible names for the pair and then vote for their favorite via an online poll. A few of the names considered were “Red and Green” (meh), “Lucy and Crucey” (different), “Don and Ana” (funny but no). The winning name was E.J. and Mabel (naturally) with “Freedom and Justice” coming in a close second.

Who were the Sterns? E.J. and Mabel Stern lived in Las Cruces beginning in 1917. His first business was the Popular Dry Goods retail store in downtown Las Cruces, which now houses Boneyard Cantina and Zeffiros Pizzeria. Later, he founded Mutual Building and Loan and opened another retail store called The White House which eventually became Dunlap’s, another staple of old Main Street. That is just a sample of E.J.’s many business ventures.  As philanthropists, the Sterns funded scholarships for NMSU students, donated funds to every church in Las Cruces in the 1930’s, established the Salvation Army in Las Cruces, founded a chapter of the Boy’s Club of America (now the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of America still located in the original building and property), helped establish the first Dona Ana County Fair, and so much more. They supported the Arts obviously, giving the city two beloved, bronze lions who perpetually stand guard over city facilities and wear funny hats now and then. 

Mabel and EJ sculptures on either side of entrance to parking lot with city hall in background.

Mabel and E.J. standing guard at City Hall location. Photo credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

Rubber Ducks blog is brought to you by the Las Cruces Public Art program to share ideas, information, discussions, trends, and all things public art. Please send comments and ideas for future blogs to PublicArt@las-cruces.org.

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