Portland city officials have elk statue in its crosshairs
Over the past several weeks, the fate of Portland's second-oldest and arguably most popular work of public art, the elk statue and fountain, has been in the crosshairs. And the threat seemed to come from its owner and caretaker: city government.
After some pushback, a more equitable process is set to unfold this summer, which will give the complete artwork a 50-50 chance to be fully restored and returned to its spot along Southwest Main Street between Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square. The Portland Parks Foundation also, thankfully, has stepped in, underwriting a third-party study of the fountain's restoration costs.
Still lurking just off-stage, however, is an unnecessary false-binary choice between preservation and transit. At least the public will have its say.
During the 2020 protests, statues of historical leaders were toppled in Portland and in cities around the world. Yet the elk has always been popular, a talisman greeting westbound drivers, pedestrians and cyclists coming off the Hawthorne Bridge. While the elk was not deliberately torn down by protesters, its spot near the Multnomah County Justice Center put it in the middle of unrest, including ill-advised bonfires in its fountain and, unfortunately, substantial graffiti.
The decision to remove both the statue and the fountain for placement in protective storage was reasonable — under the caveat that full restoration and return would one day occur.
As I saw visiting the bronze statue at a warehouse, it was undamaged save for a few specks of spraypaint. The granite fountain was nowhere to be found. Though many bureaus (transportation, water, parks) have a hand in the artwork's fate, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council had catalogued its pieces, seemingly no one bothered to figure out the cost of the fountain restoration.
Instead, the city filed for a demolition permit, but not because of the fountain's irreparability. They tried to use the damage as the impetus to commission a smaller new pedestal, which would allow room for a bike lane.
If a patient went to a hospital needing stitches and came out with a prosthetic, one might say it violates the doctor's Hippocratic Oath. Admittedly, though, the elk's place has long been a quirky anachronism.
Erected in 1900 as a gift to the city from former mayor and Humane Society founder David Thompson, the elk was conceived as a watering hole for horses in the final years before automobiles took over. It's the statue by Roland Hinton Perry that gets the attention, but it's the fountain, by H.G. Wright, that made a gathering spot.
This was famously demonstrated in Gus Van Sant's classic 1993 movie "My Own Private Idaho," which opens its Portland-set second act with Keanu Reeves cradling a passed-out River Phoenix in his arms at the fountain's base.
And as the city's own Historic Landmarks Commission made clear, as did the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, the elk statue-fountain combo is considered one composition — just like the city's oldest public artwork: the Skidmore Fountain in Ankeny Square.
That's why permanently separating this statue from its fountain is about more than just the elk itself. It calls into question the city of Portland's integrity as a caretaker of its own public art. What other landmarks might be cannibalized?
Thankfully, the city has changed course and put the elk fountain's fate up for discussion. Two options will be offered — a restored fountain in its original spot, or a traffic-friendly replacement pedestal — through the Bureau of Development Services' Design Advice Review process. In addition to public testimony, volunteer members of the city's Design Commission can weigh in without being compelled to vote yet.
Even so, this process is set up to pit a bike lane and a restored fountain against each other. That's why I would have favored a third (or fourth) option. Moving the fully restored statue and fountain to the adjacent Chapman Square, where the middle is empty as if awaiting an artwork (which Lownsdale Square already has), or even to the square's edge, which would maintain the elk's visibility and keep it even closer to the original location (but out of traffic).
Of course, the best solution would be to close this portion of Main Street to traffic. It's between two park blocks and clearly meant to be a plaza, capped by the fountain. Or at the very least we could close it to private cars, like Tilikum Crossing. And in the pandemic's wake, creating more car-free pedestrian spaces is a global trend.
Even so, we now have a much more reasonable course this summer than what the city bureaus and commissioners initially concocted behind closed doors. While still endangered by its caretakers, they've given the elk a chance.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or at portlandarchitecture.com.
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