Preservation Magazine, Summer 2018

Portland, Oregon’s Massive Paul Bunyan Statue Looks Better Than Ever

It’s hard to miss the 31-foot-tall statue of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan that stands guard over the Kenton neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Built for the state’s 1959 centennial, the steel-and-concrete-plaster structure has undergone repainting several times, and was even moved 59 feet to make way for the city’s light rail line in 2002. But the most recent restoration, completed in September of 2017, is the most comprehensive one to date.

Paul, as the statue is affectionately known by neighbors, received a spruce-up in 2009, but by 2015 was showing worrisome cracking and paint loss. The Kenton Neighborhood Association, which maintains Paul, hired the design and fabrication company Figure Plant to identify the problems and find a long-term fix. Figure Plant works on projects all over the country, but its office and workshop happen to be right across the street from the statue. “We look out at it every day,” says company owner David Frederickson.

He and his team performed a detailed analysis of Paul’s surface and internal structure, sending a camera inside the statue and combing through the Oregon Historical Society’s archives for documentation. The good news: the volunteer iron workers and plasterer’s union apprentices who built the National Register–listed statue had done an excellent job. And it turned out they’d done it while working for the Kenton Businessmen’s Club, in the same workspace that Figure Plant now occupies. “His bones were built in our shop,” says Frederickson. “We felt we had a folkloric duty to take part in the process.”

The statue towers over the street.

photo by: Dina Avila

The process of restoring the statue took about six to eight weeks.

Figure Plant removed about 80 percent of the statue’s previous coatings, and cleaned and patched pitted and cracked areas. The company used a specialty exterior commercial paint to restore Paul’s original red plaid shirt, dark beard, and other classic Bunyan features. “We chose some slightly more saturated colors that will hold up better in the sunlight,” Frederickson says. The community raised $85,000 to pay for the project, with help from local businesses such as Widmer Brothers Brewing and the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer team.

Neighbors also formed a nonprofit group called Friends of Paul to maintain a fund for future upkeep and repairs. Now Paul’s biggest concern is friendly competition from the other Paul Bunyans spread out across the country, mostly in timber-industry states such as Minnesota and Maine. Local pride in the statue runs deep, according to Frederickson. “There’s one that’s kind of our Paul Bunyan competitor,” he says. “But theirs is on a platform, and it’s really only about a 20-foot statue.”

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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