After almost two years in storage, one of the city’s most popular works of public art, the 122-year-old Elk statue by Roland Hinton Perry, is poised to return to its original downtown location on Southwest Main Street by early 2023.
Yet the statue’s original octagonal granite fountain base—designed by H.G. Wright and actually the impetus for the project—will likely not be accompanying the beloved bronze artwork back into public view. At least, not at first.
Located between leafy Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square, the fountain was damaged by fire during 2020’s social-justice protests occurring in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center on Southwest Third Avenue. The damage prompted Regional Arts and Culture Council officials to first have the statue disassembled and moved into storage, and then the fountain itself; in the latter case, it’s an act not without its own physical impact.
The statue’s slight surface damage has already been repaired. The fountain is another story. Its pieces, including four water troughs, a central granite pedestal with water spouts and the statue pedestal, have been carefully cataloged, analyzed for damage, and stored. Yet no steps have yet been taken toward repair and reconstruction.
Meanwhile, public clamor for the statue’s return has given the numerous municipal government entities involved in deciding the statue’s fate (including not only RACC but the Portland Water Bureau, Portland Parks & Recreation, the Portland Department of Transportation, and Commissioner Carmen Rubio) a reason to set aside the City of Portland Historic Landmarks Commission’s recommendation of full fountain restoration at the original site along with the statue and instead answer a vocal public calling for the statue to be returned.
A Traffic-First Solution
Last month the City of Portland announced its intention to commission a narrower pedestal for the Elk statue, without a fountain. This will allow the statue to return sooner, and more significantly, a new thinner pedestal allows space for a bike lane on this block. (There are, however, no bike lanes on any of the Main Street blocks west of Fourth.) The plan also allows two one-way lanes of automobile traffic to remain intact.
However, no final decisions have been made. As city arts program manager Jeff Hawthorne confirmed by email, the new pedestal could in theory be temporary, with full fountain restoration still going forward.
Even so, the new pedestal risks becoming a potential trojan elk. Once it’s up, are we really going to take out a bike lane to restore a fountain in that spot? Or would we really move the Elk statue to another location with the original fountain once it’s back in place at the original spot?
To keep the statue separated permanently from its fountain would bring a grim reality: that the City of Portland will have done more lasting damage to this landmark than any protester or counter-protester.
What’s more, with a new traffic-friendly small pedestal, we’d be transforming Elk from an unlikely gathering place to a trophy. It’s not what the artwork’s creators or benefactor wanted, and it may prove to be a lasting blemish on the city’s integrity as caretaker of historic public art.
It was another artful, historic fountain that inspired Mayor David Thompson to commission the fountain-statue combination: the Skidmore Fountain, our city’s oldest work of public art, completed in 1888 from a design by Olin Warner and styled after fountains at Paris’s Versailles palace.
Thus it begs the question: Would the City of Portland ever consider permanently disassembling the Skidmore’s fountain-and-bronze-artwork combination? It would be considered sacrilege, or at the very least, it would be understood that the art and the fountain weren’t two artworks: together they were one composition.
This is the part that I don’t think local leaders have done enough to acknowledge. It’s convenient to extract the bronze statue from its granite base in order to solve the problem of its traffic-median location. Admittedly, people want the statue back and this move does so. But it doesn’t change the fact that a new pedestal would be a kind of artfully rendered prosthetic. And it’s easy to forget that the public clamor for the return was largely comprised of people expecting the fountain to come with it.
How We Got Here
When the statue was removed two summers ago, both sides of the political divide blamed each other. Right-wingers suggested Elk had been deliberately damaged by protesters, citing the pattern of other statues toppled here in Portland (of presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln downtown, and former Oregonian editor Harvey Scott on Mt. Tabor in Southeast) and beyond. Yet the Elk was beloved by left-leaning protesters against police brutality, who made a gathering spot here. Even in our politically divided times, there are no anti-Elk constituencies out there. Although it’s fair to say that protesters’ bonfires damaged the fountain and paint was flecked onto the statue, it’s hard to prove willful intent. After all, following the statue’s removal, protesters got quite creative in creating a series of temporary Elk homages and replacements from humbler materials.
The 2020 protests were only the latest time that Elk and its fountain have been caught in the melee. In 2011, one of the statue’s bronze antlers was damaged during the Occupy Portland protests that saw activists camp in Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square for weeks. In the early 20th century, these two squares were a frequent activists’ gathering place.
While the protests were still occurring daily, I visited the statue in storage at a warehouse in outer Northeast Portland. It was a moving experience, not only to see Elk in an entirely different context but also, I have to admit, because it was possible to see the bronze statue more up-close than ever would have been possible at its normal spot. Although I think the fountain should return, it does make me wonder how tall a new pedestal would be, or rather how short it could be, because there really was something impactful about bringing the bronze animal closer down to earth. But when I visited the statue in storage, it was also covered in small specks of spray-paint. Being in high in the air had protected it from greater damage.
Defiantly a Gathering Place
Acting as a traffic median, the Elk statue and its fountain have always been an unlikely gathering place. Yet they undeniably were. And that’s because of the fountain, not the statue.
Being between the two tree-ensconced squares gave the statue an unlikely prominence, especially with Main Street westbound feeding directly off the Hawthorne Bridge, and even though the animal faces away from traffic, you can really see it from a distance, be it on Main, Third or Fourth. Yet in a city that has prided itself on valuing the pedestrian over the automobile driver, the fountain is what caters to people on foot.
A moment from Gus Van Sant’s 1993 classic My Own Private Idaho (maybe even its signature moment) actually demonstrates the fountain’s value and historic role. Elk is the setting for the first Portland-set scene. Here Keanu Reeves cradles a passed-out River Phoenix in his arms, leaning against the fountain. You barely even see the statue in this scene. It’s all about the respite the fountain provides. It’s the fountain that helps the statue atop it become a bona-fide place. The fountain, including the pockets of space its girth creates for a few feet in each direction, creates that pedestrian-oriented gathering spot in spite of the cars on either side.
David Thompson was the first president of the Oregon Humane Society along with being Portland’s mayor. He commissioned Elk out of concern for actual four-legged creatures; it was a watering hole for horses at the end of the automobile age.
While humans may not drink from such fountains, they are a natural urban gathering spot, with unique ability to create pockets of tranquility even outside of park settings. Traffic be damned, that’s what the Elk statue with its fountain has always done.
[One aside: In the movie, the fountain was temporarily changed from its normal inscription noting David Thompson’s donation, to THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN, a kind of inside joke. In real life, that phrase is actually the name of the other local sculpture bequeathed by Thompson. Designed by Hermon Atkins MacNeil and completed in 1904, the statue is located in Washington Park, near what became a popular cruising spot in the 1970s and ’80s, hence the reference (Idaho is a landmark of gay cinema). The statue was also given a rider.]
Because city decision-makers have cautioned that no final decision has been made, let’s call returning the statue to the original location with a new pedestal one of a few different options. Let’s start with the two main ones: returning the statue with a new pedestal to the old location, or moving the original fountain/statue somewhere else.
A new pedestal at that location, where so much significant social history has taken place, is a chance to say something about what went on there: to perhaps pay tribute to 2020 in some way. Such hybrids of old and new art also rarely exist. Yet if a new pedestal were given time to settle in, the case for later replacing it with the original fountain, be it here or another location, would quickly diminish, thereby permanently relegating the fountain to storage.
Then there’s the question of what form a new pedestal might take. If it were a contemporary-style base, that would make for a bold juxtaposition against Roland Perry’s circa-1901 bronze statue. Yet this might also cause the pedestal to compete with the Elk itself for attention, which is concerning.
On the other hand, if a base were configured in a Beaux Arts style like that of the original Thompson-commissioned fountain (as has explicitly been discussed as a possibility in the city’s own documents), it could easily become an inauthentic caricature: the equivalent of Disneyland.
Is an entity called the Regional Arts & Culture Council really considering replacing a 122-year-old Beaux Arts fountain with a new Beaux Arts-style pedestal and call it the same? Such a move would have to be branded either cringe-inducingly naïve or deeply cynical.
A second option: Moving the Elk and its restored fountain elsewhere.
Plenty of reasonable people oppose this idea, arguing that the location is an indelible part of the artwork’s history. At the same time, there is a fairly close-by spot to which the Elk statue could be moved, one that would get it out of traffic: the middle of Lownsdale Square. While Chapman already has a statue in the middle (the Spanish-American War Soldiers Monument by Douglas Tilden, dating to 1906), Lownsdale does not. Here, surrounded by trees, you wouldn’t see the Elk from a distance in quite the same way. Yet fountains were made to be in parks, not squeezed between vehicular lanes.
The Elk statue’s fountain was meant to provide water to horses in a time just before the age of automobiles began. It thus became an anachronism somewhat quickly, for cars were skirting by the fountain from fairly early-on in its history. At one point, a traffic sign was even hung around the statue’s neck. Yet fountains have a long history in park design, particularly in the tradition begun by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park. Olmsted’s sons provided the master park plan for Portland. Fountains symbolize the watering hole in nature: the one place in the ecosystem where nearly all birds and animals gather to replenish themselves.
Would we really destroy the fountain or permanently relegate it to storage because of its interference with a bike lane when an arguably more suitable location exists just a few feet away?
Furthermore, the statue honoring Oregon’s slain soldiers in the Spanish-American War in Lownsdale Square could in theory be replaced by Elk and its fountain. No one wants to dishonor those who gave their lives for their country, yet the Spanish-American War is remembered today as much for the fake news (then known as yellow journalism) that prompted America’s entry into the conflict as the battles themselves.
Yet this option does admittedly seem unlikely, because there are enough people, including members of the Historic Landmarks Commission, who believe the original location is important. That’s certainly true, even if choosing the location over restoring the full artwork seems difficult to understand.
A Third Way: Going Car-Free
The whole problem has been the City of Portland’s reluctance to restore the full fountain due to its interference with a bike lane. But it’s not necessarily the bike lane that’s a problem here: it’s the desire for a bike lane and two lanes of automobile traffic.
What if choosing between the original location and the original fountain is a false binary? What if there’s a better way? Considering that this stretch of Main Street is between two continuous park blocks (three if you count the federally-owned Terry Schrunk Plaza immediately south), why not consider keeping the intended bike lane but losing the cars? It would allow the original fountain, the original location, and the bike lane. And it would make the very leaders nervous about this decision look smart and on-trend.
All around the world, particularly since the pandemic began, cities have been retrofitting to become more pedestrian friendly, and the most common move has been to designate more car-free streets. In fact, focusing on pedestrians and mass-transit use is what made Portland a model of city planning beginning in the 1970s.
Closing Main between Third and Fourth is an easy move that would cost the city next to nothing and stitch the two park blocks (Chapman and Lownsdale) together even more. While it would require re-routing one bus line around the blocks and force bridge traffic to turn three blocks sooner than already happens at Broadway, those seem like a small price to pay toward a better total parks-and-statue environment that would benefit all.
Humility vs. Hubris
We can all agree it’s been a long two years, with Covid disrupting nearly every aspect of our lives and the cruelties of the Trump era (including the administration’s world-headline-generating violent response to protests in Portland) still fresh in our minds. We’ve seen downtown in particular both get emptied out by now remotely-working office employees and get damaged by months of graffiti and vandalism as a result of both pandemic and protests.
After all that loss, all that damage, all those crushed dreams, how could we not fully restore and bring back the city’s most popular work of public art?
It tells me there’s a problem here that’s bigger than Elk: that the City of Portland is not a thoughtful, committed or humble caretaker of its own heritage. It tells me that we’re susceptible to lazy hubris, thinking we can create a prosthetic that’s as beloved as the original appendage and no one will care.
It’s a reminder that in most cases, urban history isn’t wiped out by an atomic bomb or a volcano. It’s instead much more often a self-inflicted death by a thousand cuts—or in this case, cuts needing stitches that instead become justification to amputate.