Monday, November 03, 2014

Lovejoy Columns

The next public art we're looking at is a bit unusual. The Pearl District's swanky Elizabeth Lofts building has a plaza on the 10th Ave. side, and this plaza includes a group of concrete columns that look like construction debris, topped with twisted rebar. The columns are wrapped in plastic panels with designs printed on them.

For many years, the area of today's Pearl District was a railyard belonging to the Seattle, Portland & Spokane railroad, crossed only by the Lovejoy St. viaduct, which ran between the Broadway Bridge and close to I-405. As the story goes, a railyard night watchman named Tom Stefopoulos had a hobby of making chalk drawings on the columns of the Lovejoy viaduct in his spare time. He had a natural talent at it, and over the years a collection of his drawings accumulated on the columns. The railyard was more or less abandoned after the railroad was absorbed by BNSF in 1970, and the land sat derelict until the late 1990s. A few scenes in the Gus van Sant film Drugstore Cowboy (1989) were filmed around the railyard in the urban decay days, before the rich people or even the artists had arrived. Rumors spread about the drawings on the Lovejoy columns, and people would occasionally visit them by sneaking in or just by knowing the right people.

When developers arrived in the late 1990s, pulling up the old railroad tracks was the easy part. The Lovejoy viaduct was the real obstacle (they felt), and it had to go in order to create the urban condo tower Utopia everyone had in mind. The Pearl District arts community eventually convinced the city to salvage at least some of the columns, for some sort of unspecified future reuse. So far so good. This sure sounds like it ought to be the beginning of a happy ending.

Unfortunately this salvage effort happened without involving any actual art conservators, and local arts institutions seemed to be profoundly uninterested in the columns. I've always thought they would've been far more interested if only Stefopoulos had been a "real" (i.e. non-outsider) artist, with the right connections and some gallery sales under his belt. In any event, the columns were left out exposed to the elements while the parties dithered endlessly over what to do with them, and the chalk drawings on many of the exposed columns were irreparably damaged, as in totally washed away by rain. There they all sat for a few years, until a condo developer stumbled across an art installation about the columns and decided he wanted to reuse them in his next project.

The original plan for the surviving drawings was to chisel them off the columns and display them in the Elizabeth Lofts lobby. Preservationists managed to derail that idea, so the columns were eventually re-erected in front of the building, albeit wrapped in plastic panels with reproductions of the original drawings, along with a mid-2000s promise that the originals would soon be restored to their original glory somehow.

Supposedly the originals are still there underneath it all, protected somehow by these panels. I admit I have my doubts about that. It doesn't look like the sort of covering that would actually protect a chalk drawing from rain. Of course, this is Portland so nobody's going to fess up and admit to being incompetent and ruining the drawings, and nobody's going to be the one to be rude and point fingers and assign blame, and nobody's going to get fired or publicly embarrassed over this monumental screwup, and we're all going to pretend the plastic panels are the real drawings, at least until everyone who could possibly be offended has shuffled off to the great live/work condo loft space in the sky.

1 comment :

Terry Freeman said...

I used to work as a gas jockey at Radio Cab garage at NW 16th and Kearney and I walked to and from home in NE Portland by walking under the viaduct and up the stairs onto the Broadway Bridge. It was always a nice walk (barring a few creepy moments), admiring the columns and wondering who drew them, and I even have 1 old black and white 35mm negative I shot of one.

They show up in 'Drugstore Cowboy' by Gus Van Sant, and they're also in the movie 'Foxfire' starring a very young, pre-fame Angelina Jolie and Hedy Burress.

I keep thinking I'll stop by the new 'installation' but I don't think I'd leave feeling very good about it. I guess I'm just happy to have gotten to experience the real thing.

I miss late-80's Portland.