|(Regional Arts & Culture Council image)|
If you had hoped to see the historic David P. Thompson fountain restored to its rightful location on S.W. Main Street, forget it. Won’t happen.
In what seems like a Kafka-esque turn of events, the City of Portland is pursuing a 120-day “demolition delay” for a historic landmark that the city itself hastily demolished in 2020. As a consequence, the Beaux-Arts designed fountain, dating to 1900, will be removed from the city’s list of historic landmarks.
This is the case of city bureaucrats prevailing over the city’s historic fabric. The Portland Water Bureau didn’t like managing the fountain, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation wanted more room on Main Street for a bike lane and bus passage. So say bye-bye to an iconic historic landmark.
The fountain, originally intended to provide water for horses and dogs, provided a pedestal for the iconic elk statue donated by the Portland pioneer entrepreneur and early mayor, David P. Thompson.
The city promises to return the elk – removed after it was damaged slightly during political protests in 2020 – but it will stand on a new pedestal of as-yet undisclosed design. The pedestal will be smaller in size than the original fountain.
As you may recall, the Regional Arts & Culture Council on July 2, 2020 removed the elk statue after minor damage occurred. Within two weeks, the Portland Water Bureau hired a company to demolish portions of the granite fountain and salvage other parts. The speedy demolition appeared to fly in the face of state and city laws intended to protect historic sites.
|Gone and not coming back|
Meanwhile, the transportation bureau late in 2020 offered drawings showing the fountains site narrowed either by 4 or 8 feet on its northern and southern edges to accommodate its desired traffic plan.
Last fall, a memo from a city preservation planner recommended that the fountain be restored. “Given that the landmark resource is specifically noted as a fountain, staff believes that maintaining this function is important to maintaining the resource’s historic character and significance,” Hillary Adam wrote. “Staff does not believe that reducing the fountain to a pedestal maintains this character or significance, essentially reducing the landmark by at least half of its cultural and aesthetic value.” In an informal meeting, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission agreed.
But removal of the fountain landmark designation leaves the Landmarks Commission no voice to recommend its preservation. A new pedestal will be reviewed instead by the Portland Design Commission, whose hands will be largely tied by whatever designs are presented to it.
In coming months, the Design Commission will send its recommendation to the Portland City Council, which already will have made up its mind by informal agreements long before the hearing.
Yes, people can testify to the City Council. Then the council will vote and, as it usually does, thank one another for outstanding leadership. Their decision will send a sad message, as noted by Brian Libby, an astute critic who usually writes about modern architecture.
“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,” he wrote. He added, “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.”
Join Building on History’s mailing list by writing “add me” to email@example.com.