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Originally published November 3, 2009 at 12:09 AM | Page modified November 3, 2009 at 7:07 PM

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Aurora's aging elephant rises again

The 9,500-pound elephant on Highway 99 recently underwent a massive renovation and was hoisted back to its perch Monday at 8800 Aurora Ave. N. The concrete elephant is considered a local icon of roadside pop art, which became popular in the early years of highway culture as a way for businesses to catch the attention of motorists.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For a moment Monday, as the giant concrete elephant tipped in the wind, everyone was on edge.

This day had been planned for, anticipated, canceled, then rescheduled. And Larry Steele was ready to see the job done.

As owner of the rental store at 8800 Aurora Ave. N., he'd inherited this unusual icon of modern-day history when he bought the property in 2006.

The elephant, he learned, had been a roadside fixture on Aurora Avenue since the 1940s. For years, it peered down on the busy highway, hovering on steel posts above a flower-shop sign, which later became his Aurora Rents sign.

At least three or four people a day stopped their cars and took pictures of it. Some, Steele said, even joked that they would lie down in front of a crane if he ever decided to get rid of it.

But time had left its mark. The elephant was missing eyes, part of its trunk and a tail. Weather had dented its hide, and generations of pigeons had lived in its hollow belly.

Simply put, the elderly pachyderm was in a state.

So Steele faced a decision: Tear down one of Seattle's kitschiest landmarks, which local historians ranked up there with the Hat 'n' Boots, or spend thousands restoring it?

He chose the latter.

"The elephant has no practical use, and I should be checked for doing it, but here we are," Steele said.

In March, Steele hired a crane operator to take down the elephant. A concrete contractor and longtime client offered to refurbish it.

Bill Heath, of W.R. Heath in Snohomish County, started working on the project last spring.

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"It was in pretty bad shape," he said. "It was actually dangerous."

Great Depression project

The back story on the elephant goes like this: Sometime in the 1920s or '30s, Giovanni "John" Braida, a local tile artisan, decided to build the sculpture to keep his employees busy during the Great Depression.

His idea was to create a one-of-a-kind, life-size piece to show off their craftsmanship skills, said Gil Braida, Giovanni's grandson.

The grander the better, he said. Giovanni Braida drew inspiration from India, which led to the making of the ceremonial elephant, complete with a howdah — a decorated carriage fitted atop the animal's back.

Materials were scraped together from his grandfather's backyard, Braida said. Chicken wire was stretched around a frame and reinforced with water pipes. Wet concrete was layered on top and shaped. The howdah was constructed out of wood.

After completion in the mid-1930s, the elephant stood in front of Giovanni Braida's business at 3408 Woodland Park Ave. As the city streetcar made the bend at North 34th Street, riders looked out and recognized it as a landmark, his grandson said. He remembered neighborhood children playing on it.

In 1946, the elephant was sold to Denny Grindall, owner of the Aurora Flower shop, for $500. Grindall and his crew loaded it on a Model-T truck and drove it to 8800 Aurora by way of Ballard to avoid power lines on Highway 99, said his son, Paul Grindall, 67.

Even decades ago, it was falling into disrepair, he said.

All body parts restored

When Heath started the restoration, he and another man had to climb inside the elephant and remove several pigeons. The inside reeked of droppings, wood had rotted out, and concrete was on the verge of falling off, Heath said. (He later felt guilty about the bird eviction, he said, and took three baby pigeons home, nursing them with a syringe until they grew wings.)

It took Heath a few months of painstaking work to clean and restore all the elephant's body parts, intricate tile and color. Screens inside the howdah and under the belly will keep future pigeons out, Steele said.

He estimates the renovation cost him more than $10,000 — but the exact total remains elusive because he hasn't tallied all the receipts, he said.

"Maybe I don't want to know," he said.

Monday, as the morning chill cut the air, Steele watched workers carefully calibrate cables and shackles.

They tried to hoist the elephant several times. But the center of gravity was always off, and the 18-foot, 9,500-pound animal dangled precariously.

Finally, just after 11:30 a.m., the elephant started to move. Up, up, up. Inch by precious inch. Within minutes, it rested atop two 15-foot steel posts. Nestled between its shiny white tusks was the Aurora Rents sign.

Steele smiled.

"Now, how about that?" he said, raising his camera for a shot.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

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