Portland Chamber Orchestra Portland Oregon

Elk and fountain, together again?

As arguments rage over returning the elk to its downtown home with its full fountain, City Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Dan Ryan push for full restoration.

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UPDATE: Portland City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday, May 11, to bring the complete Thompson Elk Fountain, with a repaired complete base, back to its original location. See Fred Leeson’s “Building on History” column, Victory for the Thompson Elk Fountain.”

Elk and fountain, in better days. Photo: Regional Arts & Culture Council

The long dispute over downtown Portland’s beloved elk statue and fountain may be taking a significant turn. The 122-year-old statue and fountain, which has perched for most of its life between Chapman and Lownsdale squares in a row of parks between the west riverfront and the downtown core, was damaged by fire during the social justice protests of 2020.

Both elk and fountain, officially known as the singular Thompson Elk Fountain, were removed for safekeeping and refurbishment, their fates uncertain (along with the fates of other monuments toppled by protesters, including statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the nearby South Park Blocks). Damage to the elk itself was relatively minimal. Harm to the fountain, which in its early days provided a welcome watering spot for horses and for its entire existence has been a place for citizens to gather and sit or simply slow down, gaze upon, and enjoy, was more severe.

Arguments began almost immediately. Should it be refurbished? Had it seen its day? Should it return fully restored to its longtime space, or give way so traffic could move more freely? Should the elk go to a different part of the city, on a smaller platform? And, perhaps most significantly, was the fountain an integral part of the sculpture, or just an easily replaceable platform for the elk to hang its hooves?

The Thompson Elk Fountain at the height of 2020’s civil unrest. Photo: Nathan Howard

Brian Libby provided valuable background and spelled out many of the complications a couple of months ago in this story for ArtsWatch. Since then some fault lines have grown wider. Advocates of full restoration suggested that the city’s water bureau was reluctant to maintain the fountain and opposed to its return. Bike advocates and transit advocates were pushing for bike lanes and better bus and traffic flow through the fountain’s longtime home, some calling either for complete removal of the sculpture or removal of the space-eating fountain, replacing it with a much smaller base for the elk to stand on. The legal ramifications of historic landmark status and a tactic called “demolition delay” entered the fray. At one point the city recommended replacing the elk with a new, smaller and narrower base. Advocates of full restoration began a vigorous social media campaign, including a Facebook page in which the elk itself often makes its own humorous yet sharply pointed case.

The fountain suffered heavy damage during downtown protests. Photo: City of Portland.

Friends of the elk and fountain have also taken their case beyond the various city bureaus and directly to city commissioners, pushing for full restoration. And that push appears to be bearing fruit. On Friday, May 6, Commissioner Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio are filing a resolution “directing the City of Portland to restore and return the Fountain base when the iconic Thompson elk returns to Southwest Main Street.” Their statement continues: “This resolution builds on the Portland Parks Foundation’s feasibility study into returning the Fountain, including the consideration of right-of-way improvements to support bus, bike, and pedestrian safety.”

However that plays out – the declaration squeezes a lot of interests into a small space – Rubio and Ryan are reported to believe they have support from a majority of the City Council. It’s considered likely that bike lanes, for instance, will be included in the reconfiguration.

But the statement also clearly establishes the fountain as an integral and nondisposable part of the sculpture. If this passes the full Council, it appears to be a clear win for preservationists, and for the many citizens who consider the elk and fountain to be an important downtown landmark that should be protected. Ryan could hardly have made the case more clearly in his statement:

“Simply put, the Thompson Elk Fountain centers our Civic Affairs district with welcoming public art. When one comes to the area to testify at City Hall, serve on jury duty, and visit with a federal judge, The Elk was there to remind you that you are in a special place, and the fountain base represents our vitality as a community. We all have a list of items that help define the soul of our City. For countless Portlanders, The Elk is part of our soul, and the restoration of the Thompson Elk Fountain is connected to the healing of Portland. I look forward to celebrating the Thompson Elk Fountain’s return with our community as we heal together.”

Friday’s statement from Rubio’s office said the private Parks Foundation has played a key role in the resolution:

“Roughly one month ago, the Portland Parks Foundation (PPF) board voted to hire a firm or team with experience in architectural restoration, stone carving and masonry, and traffic engineering design to:

  •  Create a detailed assessment of the remaining fountain parts and whether and how new parts can be fabricated to faithfully reproduce the original fountain. The fountain would use recirculating (not potable) water.
  •  To develop scenarios for how the right of way can be designed to accommodate the restored fountain and base while addressing safety concerns for pedestrians, bikes, transit, and automobiles.
  • provide cost analysis for these scenarios.”

Rubio, who oversees parks and arts on the City Council, supported that view: “The Portland Parks Foundation and I share a common goal: to give life and beauty to our city by creating safe, welcoming public spaces,” she said in the statement. “The Foundation’s investment will help us understand how to repair the Fountain, what it will cost, and also address the core safety concerns with having a fountain in the middle of the street. I look forward to their findings and appreciate their ongoing partnership.”

Much remains to be done, and nothing’s settled yet: Many players, several with conflicting viewpoints and purposes, need to be brought on board, and compromises seem all but certain. But if the deal’s not done, this still feels very much like a turning point. Elk and fountain, together again?

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."
Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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3 Responses

  1. I agree that the Elk Fountain was truly iconic to my growing up in Portland; I often admired it as beautiful public art and like many special places in the Portland I have in memories and now visits, made me proud. It is hard to swallow wanton destruction of such places without just thinking it’s insane. I hope it will be restored and well protected for future generations that can see the value in what symbolic art reminds us of in both a simplistic/emotional and also a deeply informed way.

  2. Great article – but who are the advocates for changing the street grid? My research of community contacts has turned up none yet.

    Is there any basis for claiming this is an unsafe traffic circle? Traffic circles have slowed traffic throughout Portland effectively for decades.

    The Elk had been overseeing our safe passage for over a hundred years with no injuries to my knowledge. Not bad. This Elk isn’t just looking pretty, it’s keeping bicycles safe too.

    1. Daryl, one of the city’s arguments in its earlier opposition to replacing the fountain was that it wanted to add bicycle lanes, and that the width of the fountain made it difficult to do that safely. I happen to know a longtime bus driver who says he drove that route for many years and never had a problem: You just drive through the intersection slowly and carefully. I haven’t seen any official recommendation that bus and auto traffic simply be redirected a block north or south, though that might well now be part of the conversation.

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