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Muddled City Leaders Put the Beloved Elk Fountain at Risk

Updated: Mar 15

When this blogger first arrived in Portland the Thompson Elk Fountain, standing proudly in the middle of the street adjacent to major government buildings contrasted delightfully to the war monuments gracing the centers of the Midwestern cities familiar to him. Here was a monument that reminded us not of war and its carnage but of the rich natural environment that has sustained human habitation here for thousands of years.


That first impression has been reinforced by learning that David P. Thompson intended his fountain as a water source for the hundreds of horses that hauled people and goods in the pre-gasoline era. Thompson, a leader in the Humane Society, was concerned about animal welfare, and admired the Skidmore Fountain which had a similar purpose. Those horse troughs on all four sides of Skidmore’s Fountain were essential to its purpose and the motivation of its benefactor.


Today, the City, with its squabbling bureaus busily playing politics among the City Council members who nominally manage them, intends to exploit the damage resulting from 2020’s tumultuous protests to destroy the original fountain and replace it with something smaller, unmotivated by any of Thompson’s original concerns, and unmindful of Portlanders' deep love of the Thompson Elk Fountain and what it represents. Conspicuously, they have already destroyed the horse watering troughs, even while saving the pieces of the original water basin.

Thompson Elk Fountain in Winter, Mark Seibold, Photographer

The Portland Coalition for Historic Resources has composed the following letter to City Council protesting the planned demolition of the Fountain – demolition which by rights should be subject, at minimum, to a full, open public hearing and an on-the-record vote by City Council. Indeed, PCHR and this blogger feel strongly that demolition should and must be an absolute last resort. The Fountain was designated as a Portland Historic Landmark decades ago for a reason – Portlanders love it and want it preserved for future generations, not sacrificed for the convenience of gas-guzzling traffic.


We urge you to inform yourself by reading this letter and then tell the Mayor and City Council you want the original Fountain reconstructed on its original site. Their email addresses are:


· Mayor Ted Wheeler: MayorWheeler@portlandoregon.gov

· Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty: JoAnn@portlandoregon.gov

· Commissioner Dan Ryan: CommissionerRyanOffice@portlandoregon.gov

· Commissioner Carmen Rubio: Comm.Rubio@portlandoregon.gov

· Commissioner Mingus Mapps: MappsOffice@portlandoregon.gov


Here's the PCHR Letter:


Dear Mayor Wheeler and Portland City Commissioners,

The Portland Coalition for Historic Resources (PCHR) is an all-volunteer body including neighborhood leaders concerned with land use issues, housing, and historic preservation, together with participation by representatives from the two leading historic preservation organizations. Our members include experts in the designation, protection, and preservation of historic resources. We are submitting this letter out of concern for the City’s plans for the Thompson Elk Fountain, specifically its component destruction and the opaque, potentially illegal, decision-making process for the “restoration”.


The Thompson Elk Fountain (Elk statue and its base components) is a City designated Landmark, unique and unforgettable downtown gateway sculpture, and essential element in the “squares” fronting City Hall and surrounded by the courthouse and public buildings. In addition to having significance as a historic monument, the Elk Fountain represents a monument to protest. Throughout its history, it has served as a “watering hole” for animals, making it a suitable gathering place for people to gather, organize and share ideas. This was the case during protests in the summer of 2020, when people came together to let their voices be heard for a cause that resonated around the world. The Elk Fountain is emblematic of that time of protest.


We applaud the City’s ‘emergency effort’ to remove the Thompson Elk Fountain to protect this historic and cherished symbol of Portland from further damage. However, we register our deep disappointment with the arbitrary and capricious decision to shatter the partially damaged horse watering troughs integral to the remaining base, apparently made without input from the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission (PHLC) or other responsible preservation interests. Pre-demolition photos taken by private citizens show limited damage to the granite base and fountain elements. It’s clear that they were sufficiently intact to provide critical information to support restoration in accord with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation.


PCHR files strong objection to the City’s current plans to violate process and code mandates related to the re-installation of the Thompson Elk Fountain. As a designated Portland Historic Landmark (a designation made by the city decades ago), the city is required to follow its own process for protecting its historic resources via review coordinated by the Bureau of Development Services (BDS). In violation, City authorities surreptitiously and with apparent intent to avoid following the rules filed for Demolition Delay on February 15th, 2022 just before the City Council’s adoption of the Historic Resource Code Project (HRCP) recommendations became effective March 1, 2022. The City’s Arts Program Manager, as the “owner’s representative”, rushed through the application for demolition even though temporary removal of the site’s damaged material would normally be considered “repair” and/or “restoration,” with any subsequent work such as proposed alterations subject to Historic Resource Review.


The Art’s Program Manager surely must have known of City Council’s approval to adopt HRCP would require a full Type IV Demolition Review under 33.445.100.E of the new code. Such a review would involve a formal hearing before PHLC and subsequently before the City Council, allowing time for the requisite public process. The timing of the Program Manager’s filing was clearly deliberate and designed to circumvent the HRCP process, thwart transparent, robust public discussion, and avoid full restoration.


A letter from Commissioner Mapps and Commissioner Rubio to Christine Curran, Deputy SHPO incorrectly asserts the city’s compliance with ORS 358.653 based solely on an informal “briefing” of the PHLC on September 27, 2021 discussed below. The City falsely contends it has fulfilled its obligations under the State Law and may reasonably proceed with demolition. Yet, as mentioned above, the resource has NOT been demolished, merely disassembled. By the City’s own Title 33 Code for alterations of historic resources and by the City’s own description of plans for its re-installation, the resulting sculpture will be an “alteration” of the original and requires Historic Resource Review. Contrary to the City’s claims, the well-defined process has not been followed.


At the September 27th, 2021 PHLC Briefing, the Commission was asked for an informal review of the City’s plans for the Thompson Elk Fountain and made its preference clear to restore the Elk statue and its fountain to its original configuration AS A SINGULAR ENTITY. BDS recorded their comments in a follow-up document, but that briefing was neither a Design Advice Request meeting nor a Type II Historic Resource Review hearing. As such, the comments can be represented to have no legal standing.


Also made clear during the PHCL briefing was that despite the fact that the Water Bureau had systematically tagged, labeled, and recorded the component parts which were then stored pending restoration, repair and reassembly, the granite horse watering troughs were smashed during the disassembly process. They became useless for reference purposes. Fortunately a preservation architect had made record drawings in advance. There is NO practical reason why the Fountain should not be fully restored, with the plans fully reviewed by a Type II Historic Resource Review. This view is supported by BDS which reported to the PHLC that “the Fountain, a historic landmark, is a significant part of the City’s landscape and any proposed treatment to it such as alterations or relocation must go through the Historic Resource Review process.”


The gratuitous smashing of the four water troughs as integral parts of the Fountain was and remains a direct violation of the city’s requirement for Historic Resource Review prior to any alterations of a Historic Landmark. In view of this, the City bears full responsibility for the cost of full restoration of the Fountain at its original site and orientation.

A supportive case in point: When another City Historic Landmark, the Central Lutheran Church at NE 21st Avenue and Hancock Street, removed its steeple without Historic Resource Review, the City compelled the church to reconstruct the steeple at its own substantial expense.


As to the City’s claim of extreme financial expense to fund the Fountain restoration, we are aware of private fund raisers who have solicited credible estimates for the restoration and are ready to step into the breach to ensure its future stewardship. A variety of legal mechanisms in Oregon law are available to facilitate private funding for the restoration of municipally-owned historic resources, and the City would be wise to explore those options as well.


Lastly, we are aware that some City agencies may have decided that the opportunity to add bike lanes and improve traffic flow on Main Street around the fountain justified vandalism and a hostile permitting process. Over many decades the City has not taken any initiative to develop plans to mitigate such mobility concerns that could easily be remedied without in any way modifying the Landmarked sculpture. Given the importance of the Thompson Elk Fountain to the people of Portland, we suggest that a thorough study of options be undertaken to determine how to improve safe bicycle access and preserve the traffic calming presence of the circle, while retaining the Elk and its restored fountain base in its historic location.


In light of this, we urge the City to withdraw its 120-day demolition application request from BDS and instead, demonstrate your leadership and goodwill by refiling a proper application for a Type III Historic Resource Review (as required for a potential relocation) preceded by a formal Design Advice Request before PHLC..


With all the grievous harm done to the City over the last two years, it is urgent that the City restore and burnish the now wounded treasures like the Thompson Elk Fountain to help bring healing and a sense of hope and restoration to its people. The graceful Elk on its original monument base and gracious granite basin fountain recalls the elegant creatures who long inhabited what is now the city center and the importance of abundant water for all life including for the horses who provided mobility. Watering troughs are relics of a horse powered city that through their presence engage our City's youth, remind us of the horse scale and pace, the tackle, the sound of water. These bring history to life.


Let’s demonstrate that we can survive and responsibly preserve our great city.


Thanks for your consideration,

The Portland Coalition for Historic Resources

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