Two columns stand in Northwest Portland’s Pearl District, rising to meet a viaduct that no longer exists. Their tops are ragged, cleaved from the cement they once supported — prongs of rebar still jutting forth like rusted tendons. The value of these columns lies not in their bygone strength, but in the art encircling them.
These are the Lovejoy Columns. Their story is tied to the legacy of one man — an immigrant who came to Portland to nurture a dream. His name was Athanasios Efthimiou Stefopoulos, but he went by Tom.
Tom reached the US in 1910, hoping to land a career in the arts and send money back to his family in Greece. Instead, he worked most of his life as a night watchman in the SP&S railyards of Northwest Portland, while taking odd jobs as a sign painter and penmanship teacher.
At the railyards, Tom passed the idle hours doing what he loved: painting. Standing atop parked boxcars, he drew Greek mythology and American imagery on the columns supporting the Lovejoy Viaduct, which carried the western approach to the Broadway Bridge over the freight tracks. Tom used chalk and later painted over the lines, creating what’s thought to be one of the earliest — if not the first — recorded examples of graffiti in Portland.
His calligraphic designs depicted owls, landscapes, and even the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope navigating the streets of Athens. Tom is thought to have painted roughly a dozen murals from 1948-1952.
The viaduct was demolished to make way for the Pearl’s expansion in the late 1990s, but a group of local architects and artists successfully lobbied to save 10 of the painted columns. Most languished in a storage yard long enough for the weather to wash away Tom’s work — but two were preserved. A developer resited the pair in a courtyard on Northwest 10th Avenue between Everett and Flanders streets.
Today, the original paintings on the columns are encased beneath full-size photographic reproductions. A sign states that the art “will be restored by a professional conservator in the spring and summer of 2006” and directs visitors to make tax-deductible donations for the restoration effort at a defunct website.