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Suzette Smith

This week, City Commissioner Carmen Rubio's office announced that the bronze Thompson Elk statue—which formerly stood on a stone pedestal on SW Main—will return downtown.

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It isn't a given that the statue will return to its old post, between the Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square parks, as the granite base and octagonal basin on which the statue stood were damaged by nightly fires during the first month of the 2020 George Floyd demonstrations.

As for the elk statue itself, several materials released by the city note that it was damaged during the protests. That may come as a surprise because, when the statue was removed in 2020, Keith Lachowicz Public Art Collections Manager with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) told the Oregonian: “The fire did not seem to harm the elk." At the time, Lachowicz explained the statue's removal as a matter of safety, due to a large crack in the granite base which potentially left the statue unsupported.

Now Lachowicz says the statue was damaged after all. "It was almost entirely surface damage," Lachowicz explained. "Isolated remnants of graffiti and built up smoke and soot from the fires."

"The graffiti, along with the smoke and soot, was removed by a professional art conservator using a CO2 blasting technique," Lachowicz told the Mercury. "[It's like] sand blasting, but the media used is actually tiny grains of ice. It removes the paint and soot without abrading the bronze or its patina. The cleaning treatment was very successful, afterwards the bronze was then waxed and buffed."

City Arts Program Manager Jeff Hawthorne quoted the total repair cost at $8,040.

The Elk bronze being removed preemptively on July 2, 2020
The Elk bronze being removed preemptively on July 2, 2020 courtesy of RACC

Although the city's release adds that the 2011 Occupy protests damaged the elk horns, the statue—titled simply Elk—has been a site of mischief and contention since its very installation.

Elk was donated to the City of Portland, in 1900, by former mayor and founding director of the Oregon Humane Society, David P. Thompson, but right from the beginning there were those who regarded the statue with derision. According to the city, a men's social club called the Exalted Order of Elks refused to dedicate the statue because they considered it "a monstrosity of art." This is likely due to the sculpture resembling a deer with elk horns, as opposed to any of the Pacific Northwest elk subspecies.

Over the years, various residents have petitioned the statue's removal because it slows traffic on SW Main. An Oregonian piece about the statue's history even has a photo of fraternity pledges on the elk. The caption says they're cleaning it, but one is definitely using the opportunity to sit on its antlers.

The idea that the elk statue was badly damaged by the demonstrations is easy to conflate with the granite fountain that supported it. The city's report notes that the pedestal's water troughs were all too degraded by fire to be salvaged, but five of the eight segments that made up the base were saved, cleaned, and stored for future use.

The Historic Landmarks Commission would like the base fully restored, but the city is considering simply returning Elk "on a smaller base that no longer operates as a fountain."

If the city's timeline to return the elk to downtown later this year or in early 2023 goes forward, one of the most exciting aspects of the project may turn out to be the Portland Bureau of Transportation's offer to add a bike lane in the extra space that the fountain no longer dominates. Bike Portland reports that a smaller base for the statue could create room for an extension of SW Main's bike lane to the planned bike lane on SW 4th.

Whether the elk statue will remain faced away from traffic, tail turned to all who navigate the roundabout, is still under consideration.

"Indeed, that is a matter of significant debate," Hawthorne told the Mercury. He said that the city will go through a design review process in June and July. That's likely when choices about elk placement could be made.

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