State College stonemason in his natural habitat with Nittany Lion Shrine project at Penn State

For the CDTOctober 19, 2013 

Phil Hawk’s ability to make art out of rocks just came naturally.

The 1972 State College Area High School graduate excelled in gymnastics as a youth, and he said it was through the sport that his interest in craftsmanship and stonemasonry blossomed.

“Stonemasonry just kind of went along with being a gymnast,” said Hawk, 58. “You’re constantly crafting moves to make something great. That was very comfortable to me — the craftsmanship of it all.”

Hawk has been involved in high-profile local projects since his days as an athlete. The local stonemason was one of the lead workers on the Nittany Lion Shrine renovation project that was completed in September. He also constructed the stone Penn State sign near Beaver Stadium on the corner of Park Avenue and Porter Road.

However, most of Hawk’s work is showcased in homes and backyards across Centre County and other parts of the state.

Hawk began working as a private contractor stonemason in 1978 and formed his company, Philip Hawk & Co., in 1985.

“When I thought about stone work as a medium and realized I could do creative work using stone, something just snapped in me,” Hawk said. “And it hasn’t faded. That was 39 years ago.”

Interviewed at the Lemont Cafe — Hawk insists it serves the best coffee in the area — he is just a short distance from his home. His strong build and rough hands offer proof of his decades working with stone. He sports a short, kempt beard and wire glasses.

“I am a real homeboy. It’s like being an Indian,” Hawk said. “I believe becoming really familiar with a place is a virtuous thing — to know your ground almost spiritually.”

Hawk lives at the base of Mount Nittany, an area that he calls his “spiritual place.” To get the stone used for many of his projects, he goes on rock-gathering expeditions on privately owned land on Mount Nittany, with permission from the landowner.

“Mount Nittany is my sacred stone-gathering ground,” he said. “I get rock there almost exclusively.”

While most of Hawk’s work is done for residential use — things like chimneys, decorative fountains or stonewalls — he said he particularly enjoys public work.

It was through that ideal that he came on to the Nittany Lion Shrine renovation project, which was part of a Penn State senior class gift initiative.

“I had been looking at the Lion Shrine site for years thinking it was incomplete and worn and ragged,” Hawk said. “It needed more of an environment created with stone — like a real mountain lion. I knew it would be a perfect candidate for a class gift at some point. It just made sense.”

Hawk was right. Members of Penn State’s 2012 graduating class voted to fund the Nittany Lion Shrine Historical Display and Beautification campaign in October 2011 out of three options.

Derek Kalp, a landscape architect with the Penn State Office of Physical Plant, was the lead designer on the project. The Office of Physical Plant actually submitted the idea for the Lion Shrine renovation to the class gift committee. He knew right away that Hawk would be a perfect fit for the project.

“We knew we wanted to use natural stone, particularly local stone, and we really needed someone who could be precise,” Kalp said. “It was clear to me that Phil Hawk was the only person we would want to work on this project.”

This wasn’t the first time Hawk worked with Kalp or the Office of Physical Plant. Hawk created the stone Penn State sign near Beaver Stadium, which was a result of the 1992 senior class gift. Hawk said he always enjoys working with the Senior Class Gift Committee, and he didn’t hesitate when Kalp called to ask him to work on the project.

“The Shrine is one of the most iconic sculptures in all of Pennsylvania,” said Katia Esarey, the 2014 Senior Class Gift director. “Phil did a fantastic job with his stonemasonry, and I’m thankful Penn Staters will be able to enjoy his work for generations to come.”

The goal of the renovation was to create a naturalistic environment around the Lion Shrine, one that an actual mountain lion would live in. Making the structure handicap accessible and installing a stone walkway no less than 5 feet wide was also part of the design process.

“The area around the lion didn’t fit to the reverence the community has toward the lion,” Kalp said. “We wanted to give the lion a little more dignity. The whole idea was to create a lion habitat.”

Hawk started on the project in March 2013 by gathering more than 130 tons of Tuscarora sandstone from local sources, including Mount Nittany and the Purdue Mountain Range in Howard, although only about 100 tons would be used on the Lion Shrine. According to Hawk, some of the steps leading up to the Lion Shrine weigh more than a ton.

Hawk’s main contribution to the project was the base below the lion sculpture itself.

Much of the work was done in Hawk’s own studio in Lemont, thanks to an exact replica of the Nittany Lion that the Office of Physical Plant created 20 years ago.

The replica lion made its way from an Office of Physical Plant loft to Hawk’s backyard to help him with the project design.

“The real lion sculpture actually never moved at all,” Hawk said. “We used the replica Nittany Lion to do the underpinning in my stoneyard studio. We decided the best way to handle the base was to have three layers of stonework.”

During the design process, rocks are cut down and shaped as needed. Flat rocks work best because they offer places for visitors to sit and are easier to fit together with other rocks. Hawk’s emphasis on using local stone and his ability to fit everything together were the reasons Kalp decided to contract him for the project.

“I knew what Phil could do,” Kalp said. “I was actually excited during the whole process just to see the placement of every stone. It was very deliberate and thoughtful, and it was exciting to see it really come together.”

With almost 40 years’ experience under his belt, Hawk said he hopes to not only continue with his private contracting, but to do some stonework for his own home as well.

“When I did the Penn State sign, I remember thinking, ‘This is the hardest stone work I’ve ever done’ after 18 years of experience,” Hawk said.

“Another 20 years of experience,” he continued, speaking of the Lion Shrine, “and this was definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

Kevin Horne is a Penn State journalism student.

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