The deer in West Park has been around since I was a kid. What can you tell me about it? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The deer in West Park has been around since I was a kid. What can you tell me about it?

Question submitted Frank S. Bruno, Penn Hills

Not much, considering that this unassuming statue is one of Pittsburgh's oldest and most beloved works of art.

Discovering Pittsburgh's Sculpture, perhaps the definitive catalogue of Pittsburgh public art, dates the statue to the 1870s, and suggests that this piece -- known not-too-imaginatively as "Deer" -- "may be considered one of the first public pieces in the city." While the sculpture is made of iron, writer Marilyn Evert notes that because the sculpture "has always appealed to children, ... over the years thousands of stroking hands have given the piece a fine patina and the appearance of bronze."

The deer was, apparently, originally a stag, but its antlers which were later removed. Presumably this surgery was performed not by some hunter desperate for a trophy, but by concerned residents who didn't want neighborhood kids to impale themselves on it.

Yet despite the city's obvious affection for the creature, Evert couldn't identify the deer's creator: The statue is believed to have come from Paris by way of New Orleans, but historical mentions of it are scanty.

For example, the 1941 history of the North Side, Story of Old Allegheny City, describes numerous statues in West Park -- ranging from a monument to the battleship Maine (whose destruction inspired the Spanish-American War) to a memorial dedicated to the Baron Alexander Von Humboldt. (As every schoolkid knows, Von Humboldt was a German man of letters "noted for his liberal views and humanitarianism." Sounds dangerous, if you ask me.) But not a word about the diminutive (waist-high) deer.

There is at least one apocryphal tale about the deer's origins, in a 1968 Pittsburgh Press account. The story goes that a politician named James B. Orr promised to bring back a trophy "to decorate the offices of Allegheny Mayor Hugh Fleming." (Kinda puts Sheriff DeFazio's "macing" scandal in perspective, doesn't it? If you want friends in politics, you've always had to come up with a few bucks -- one way or the other.) Orr went out hunting, the Press account goes, but he didn't even see a deer. So "he decided to have the iron stag mounted in West Park" instead.

I have no idea whether this story is true. But it's an engaging tale with much to tell us about Freudian notions of compensation ... and it includes the words "stag" and "mounted" to boot. So am I going to cite it? Hell yeah.

The urban environment, not surprisingly, hasn't always been kind to wildlife. As Evert notes, during World War II, the government melted down old iron statues for use in the war effort, a policy that made the West Park deer an endangered species. But neighborhood opposition saved the creature from the furnaces: As one news account put it, "children and some parents" objected to having the "deer removed and melted into guns."

In the end, the greatest threat this deer has faced isn't been war, or even suburbanites driving SUVs: It's been simple neglect. The Press story was occasioned by a restoration effort, and in 2000, the deer was again in need of rescue. "A hole almost large enough to put a fist through gapes from above [the deer's] right eye," wrote Post-Gazette reporter Jonathan Silver. "Handfuls of rust chips have accumulated in its belly. Holes are worn in its legs and flank, a white strip of spray paint streaks one side of its head ..."

But as Silver recounted, Mayor Tom Murphy, a North Sider himself, recognized the statue's value. A local restorer removed the statue -- just a few weeks before deer season opened, happily -- and with a mix of city money and his own funds, took the deer back for refurbishment. The deer has since been returned to West Park, cleaned and coated to protect it from rust.

Nothing, however, can protect it from the adoration of Pittsburgh children. As Silver noted, the restoration did not try to repair the "smooth areas worn shiny" by thousands of children who've sat on it.

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