Monday, November 24, 2008

The Thompson Elk

[View Larger Map]

So apparently I'm doing a little series about fountains now. I recently realized I had a bunch of Flickr photos of various fountains around town, most of which I hadn't ever done a post about. So I figured, hey, I've already done a lot of the legwork, now I just need to search the interwebs a little and mash everything into a semi-coherent jumble, and I've got a new series of posts going. It's a simple and easy formula, I've found, except for the mashing-together part.

Thompson Fountain

So this stop in the shiny new fountain series takes us to the Thompson Elk Fountain, located right in the middle of Main St., downtown, between 3rd & 4th avenues, with Chapman Square on one side and Lownsdale Square on the other. The latter page (at the city parks website) describes the fountain thusly:

Between the two Plaza Blocks, Main Street curves around a huge elk fountain given to the city by David P. Thompson. Thompson arrived in Portland driving sheep over the Oregon Trail. He served as Portland's mayor from 1879-1882. One day looked out of the office window in his New Market Building at the Skidmore Fountain and decided that he wanted to dedicate a fountain to the city as well. Thompson commissioned Roland Hinton Perry, whose work adorns the Library of Congress and the dome of the Pennsylvania state capitol, and in 1900, he presented the city with a bronze elk fountain to commemorate elk that once grazed nearby. Local architect H.G. Wright designed the stone base of eastern granite, which included drinking troughs for horses and dogs. The Exalted Order of Elks refused to dedicate it because they considered the statue "a monstrosity of art." Many have tried to have Thompson's elk removed because it can be considered a traffic obstacle, but the elk statue remains. In 1974, after a debate about disturbing the blocks in order to complement the then-new General Services Building, Thompson's elk and the Plaza Blocks were designated as Historic Landmarks.

I'm not sure everyone realizes the elk is, technically, a fountain. Mostly what you see is the big statue of the elk, but there's running water at the base of it. Like the Skidmore Fountain over in Old Town, it serves a practical purpose as a drinking fountain for horses and dogs. That's not completely archaic, either; I've seen police horses drinking from both fountains before. And let's not forget the cute little Water Bowl fountain in the North Park Blocks, which is kind of a Benson Bubbler shaped like a dog bowl. I've seen dogs drinking from the regular Benson Bubblers too, come to think of it. C'mon, stop going "eeww" -- it's much more likely for you to catch cooties from a rich guy in a suit than you are from some street kid's pit bull. Think about it.

Thompson Fountain

Regarding the statue, it's not a "monstrosity of art", it's just a plain old elk. I don't actually have much of an opinion about the elk, one way or the other. Possibly familiarity breeds indifference, I dunno. I suppose it's unusual to put up a statue of an elk, and we Portlanders just forget how weird this is because it's been here forever.

In a way, the elk is our little taste of the rural Oregon experience (except without the banjos and ritual cannibalism): You're driving along, and then you swerve at the last minute to avoid a huge elk in the road that won't freakin' budge. Or even look at you, since the statue faces away from oncoming traffic. I recently figured out why this is, incidentally. Portland got the statue in 1900, and downtown's one-way street grid was instituted much later by Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee, some time between 1948 and 1952. So the elk started out facing the right way, and nobody thought to rotate it once the traffic layout changed. So now you know.

Thompson Fountain

The best part about the Thompson Elk isn't the elk, though. The actual fountain part of the fountain has a bunch of tiny spouting animal faces, which are adorable. And since the elk sits between two lanes of traffic, you have to brave gruesome vehicular death to see the little faces. They're pretty obscure, and there's an element of pseudo-danger involved in seeing them, so they're basically perfect for this humble blog, hence most of the photos are of the little animals and not the elk itself. Hell, everybody's got photos of the elk.

Thompson Fountain

Like many (but not all) of the city's fountains, the Thompson Elk is part of the Water Bureau's bailiwick. They're a bit more clued in about the whole "series of tubes" thing than most government agencies, and the Elk occasionally shows up on their surprisingly entertaining Water Blog.

A while back, they ran a mini-bio of Mayor Thompson, "The Man Behind Elk Fountain", as part of a limerick contest about the Elk. No, seriously. A limerick contest. Apparently they do these contests on a semi-regular basis.

And get your mind out of the gutter -- they're only interested in family-friendly limericks. Or haikus. Or whatever poetical form they decide to do next. Maybe they should go for more of a challenge next time and do sonnets, or Icelandic-style sagas, maybe. That could be interesting.

Thompson Fountain

So here's the inevitable bullet-point list of Elk-related items from around the net:

Thompson Fountain In the unlikely event you noticed & wondered why the photos have an odd look about them, I used yet another old vintage lens for these. This time I used an old screw-mount Vivitar 50mm f/1.8. It was getting dark, so I think I shot these either wide open or close to it. Not a bad lens overall, but definitely some funky stuff going on with the out-of-focus highlights and so forth. The lens came off an old Vivitar 220/SL, so I'm pretty sure it was made for Vivitar by Cosina. FWIW. Updated: We have linkage from Midnight Movie Guy, in a hilarious rant about 2009's awful G.I. Joe movie. So the elk statue isn't really the main point of the post by any means, but hey. Chances are you'll enjoy his post more than you're enjoying mine right now, so I figured I ought to pass it along. So now you know. And like G.I. Joe always said, knowing is half the battle.


Jinnet said...

thank you so much for your research! I am illustrating a children's book in which the statues in PDX become animated (all having to do with a little boy not following the rules). So the background research on the elk was a great help. I am in the very beginning stages and am doing this on spec for myself - read "no publisher yet." But, I will show you the page when it comes together.

Hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.