The Elephant Slide

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In the late summer of 1971, the Everson Museum of Art erected a life-size elephant-shaped playground slide on the grounds just east of the Museum. Designed by Irwin Sirota, founder of the Punch and Judy Theater/Studio in Syracuse, and artist Ivan Powell, the sixteen-foot structure was built as part of an initiative instituted by then-Museum director Jim Harithas to make the Everson a more accessible place for the community. Harithas also intended the slide to address the need for creative recreation facilities for the children of Syracuse.

In a letter to Harithas dated August 11, 1971, discussing what he termed the “Modest Pachydermatous Proposal,” Powell wrote, “We propose to erect for the city of Syracuse an Elephant-Sculpture-Plaything which will serve as a model of beauty, integrity, artistic excellence and community effort. We believe that this Elephant embodies some of the special aspects of a child’s world and that children will be able to understand and respond to these qualities.”

Construction began later that month with a cement foundation made of donated concrete, followed by a wooden frame, similar to that of a house, built in the shape of an elephant. Three hundred feet of wire mesh reinforced the wooden frame, which was then covered with another three hundred feet of cotton canvas and painted with gray house paint to resemble an elephant’s hide. A ladder allowed children to climb into the body of the elephant, and the final step in construction—the slide itself—exited the elephant between its tusks, mimicking the creature’s trunk. Construction finished in November of 1971, and the Elephant Slide opened to the public. Sirota described the slide as “One small way of helping people here develop a better way of life, a new way of looking at things.” In celebration of the slide’s completion, the Everson installed an exhibition of 150 black-and-white photographs documenting the construction process from start to finish.

For three years, children from all over the city climbed and slid down the playground pachyderm. Consistent use, as well as vandalism, eventually left the Elephant Slide in an unsightly and dangerous state of deterioration. In 1972, a vandal set fire to the slide, and later that year Museum staff discovered that the elephant’s hide was riddled with bullet holes. In the early months of 1974, a passing police officer noticed a fourteen-year-old boy struggling to free himself from the belly of the beast, and spent twenty minutes trying to release him with wire cutters. He had become entangled on the exposed wood and wire inside the structure. An article in the Syracuse Herald-Journal on April 17, 1974 described the elephant’s state of disrepair, which led to several pledges of support for restoration work. Over the summer, a “Save the Elephant” campaign raised about $1400 to reinforce the slide’s interior structure and provide the elephant with a new skin.

 

 

In 1975, under the auspices of new director Ronald Kuchta, the Everson discussed a complete overhaul of the structure, replacing hazardous parts with safer, more durable materials. Ultimately, however, Kuchta determined that the cost of repairs was prohibitive. On September 9, 1975, Museum maintenance staff dismantled the Elephant Slide, taking its remains to the city dump.

Constructed on green space adjacent to the Museum building, the Elephant Slide is an early example of the Everson’s efforts to activate the space surrounding the Museum. Along with several works of monumental sculpture installed around the exterior of the building, the Everson has recently promoted increased activity on the Community Plaza. Throughout the summer of 2016, artist Kate Gilmore presented Touch like this, Hold like that, a public sculptural installation and performance on the Plaza, and in June of 2017, the Museum introduced Food Truck & Music Fridays, which featured live musical performances every Friday throughout the summer.

The fun on the Plaza continues into this year! On February 24, as part of Syracuse Winterfest, the Everson will host a snow sculpture contest on the Plaza. From 10:00am to 3:00pm, team up with family and friends to create a work of art in snow. Prizes will be awarded for originality and display, along with free cocoa and Everson admission passes for all contestants.