Rex the lion returns to San Diego Zoo — in bronze


Legend has it that more than a century ago, it was a lion’s unexpected roar that gave rise to the San Diego Zoo. Now, two years after the zoo’s centennial celebration, that storied animal has been immortalized in bronze and will be unveiled Sunday morning to the public.

Poised on just one paw on a newly designed 5,000-square-foot plaza at the zoo’s entrance, Rex, as he is known, is something of an engineering feat. First conceived three years ago, his 10-ton mass was assembled with the help of a Northern California foundry, a Minnesota design studio and a 3D printer.

His skeletal frame is fashioned from 8,000 pounds of stainless steel, and his ability to balance on just one leg is possible because of an underground footing made of 100,000 pounds of concrete.

“Significant milestone dates come and go and as we thought about the 100th anniversary of the San Diego, we thought, what would be a way to have a lasting commemoration of our anniversary and also say thank you to the San Diego community for supporting the zoo over generations,” said Mark Stuart, president of the San Diego Zoo Global Foundation and chief development and membership officer.

“So that’s when the idea came to design and erect an amazing sculpture at our entry plaza that would serve as a welcome to millions of guests each year and bring them into the story as to how the San Diego Zoo began with an incredible siren song of a lion roaring.”

According to zoo lore, Dr. Harry Wegeworth was inspired to start a zoo in San Diego when he and his brother were driving by caged animals left over from the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park and they heard a lion roar.

Hence the inscription in the bronze commemorative plaque: “Rex’s Roar One Man One Lion One Encounter Celebrating 100 Years.”

Stuart believes that the public will become so enthralled with the imposing, 27-foot-long sculpture that it will quickly become one of the most photographed spots in San Diego.

The total cost of the new piece of public art is $1.7 million, which includes the installation and support structure that enables the visual balancing act on plaza’s stained concrete area.

Brothers Craigar and Mark Grosvenor made a donation of $1 million to make the ambitious project possible. The remaining $700,000 came from the zoo’s capital budget, which includes revenues from zoo admissions and donations.

Part of a philanthropic family that has previously contributed to the zoo as well as the San Diego Symphony and the opera, Craigar Grosvenor said Stuart had approached him about a couple of projects the zoo was pursuing, including the sculpture.

It was an easy sell, said Craigar, a San Diegan who has been an actor and filmmaker. His brother Mark is a real estate developer.

“It sounded like an extremely interesting project, the story line that goes along with this is obviously quite amazing, the beginning of the zoo in San Diego,” he said.

“My brother and I flew up to the foundry (where the sculpture was being assembled), and it is shocking, to be honest. We had no anticipation that this statue would be so massive in scale. We stood at the head and you couldn’t reach the top of it with your hand it was that tall.”

Undertaking the crafting of the sculpture was Blue Rhino Studio, which is an artistic fabricator for museums and zoos and had done work at the zoo before, including sculptures of polar bears, koala bears and marsupials. The lion, though, is by far the single largest sculpted animal the studio has been involved with.

“I work on a small scale and the challenging part is visualizing it as a large thing,” said sculptor Jim Burt. “I can’t ever see it in the space where it will be until it’s made so I have to think about it as I look at it from different perspectives, how to get the viewer to walk around it and explore it. My work ended at the 7-foot stage.”

In the interest of time, the zoo used 3D printing to scale the sculpture up to its full size, but only after Burt created 12-inch and 7-foot models of the eventual piece.

Even with the time-saving benefit of 3D printing, it is still a laborious process that begins with scanning the model, breaking it up into some 200 pieces and 3D-printing each one. The printing alone consumed 4,000 hours, said Kambiz Mehrafshani, design supervisor for San Diego Zoo Global.

Those individual pieces are molded in rubber, and they in turn are used to create hollow wax molds, which are coated in ceramic and then cast in bronze. But there’s still more to be done.

A stainless steel skeletal frame is assembled to reinforce the weighty sculpture, and those 200 bronzed pieces are then welded to the steel frame, Mehrafshani explained.

Because there is only a single touch point for the sculpture, a secure concrete footing had to be built underground to support the weight and keep it balanced.

“When the zoo sent us the original concept sketches and they said they wanted him touching on just this one paw, we said, you’ll never be able to do this,” recalled Blue Rhino owner Tim Quay.

Serving as a backdrop to the sculpture is a new stained concrete plaza designed to depict a river running through the space and a radiating sun where Rex’s paw lands. The area is decorated with rock and glass aggregate that sparkles, and depictions of animals like meerkats and macaws are scattered throughout.


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Twitter: @loriweisberg