BY FRED LEESON
The battle to save Memorial Coliseum from demolition was won three years ago. Now the battle – skirmish, is more like it – is over how the landmark building will be renovated for further use as an event arena.
Two architects who worked mightily to place the Coliseum on the National Register of Historic Places, Peter Meijer and Kristen Minor, objected strongly this week when the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission took a first look at several comparatively minor changes proposed for the Coliseum’s exterior.
Meijer and Minor contended that the commission also should be reviewing changes that will occur inside the International Style monument, even though city regulations limit the commission’s purview to exterior changes on designated landmarks.
“We don’t see any rational reason why the whole project doesn’t come before you,” Meijer said. He said the basic building design – an oval concrete seating bowl inside a four-sided glass box – was intended to expose the interior to public view from the outside. He said the inherent design makes no distinction between the building’s its interior and exterior.
Which begs the question: What’s the plan for the interior? So far, no formal plans have been filed with the city development office. Kevin Brake, a senior project manager for the Portland Development Commission that is overseeing the renovation, said the interior changes “primarily” concern color and lighting. He said there were no changes planned for the interior bowl, although some representatives from veterans’ groups said the number of seats inside the bowl apparently will be reduced.
Tim Heron, a senior city manager who is the chief staff to the landmarks commission, said the city zoning code does not allow for review of interior changes unless the space is designated as an interior landmark. He said the only two interior landmarks designated by the city are two restaurants, Huber’s and Jake’s Famous Crawfish.
For procedural reasons, the landmarks commission cannot rule on the proposed exterior changes until May 14 at the earliest. It was clear from the opening discussion on April 9, however, that the commission sees no problem with a new roof that will add four inches of solid insulation or with some minor changes to stairway railings. The thicker roof will not be visible above a low parapet.
The commission, in accord with a staff recommendation, headed off a proposed change to the curvilinear, swooping entry pavilion that significantly differed from the building’s original 1960 design. The PDC had asked to line the underside of pavilion roof with narrow cedar slats over a black background to disguise deterioration in the ceiling. The original plaster ceiling was covered in approximately 1993 with beaded-plywood that was painted white.
Based on the commission’s discussion, Robert Mawson, a consultant working with the PDC, agreed to drop the cedar slats and install a new ceiling of a white, “plaster-like” material, instead. He said the cedar slats had been proposed as a less-costly solution. Mawson said the renovation plan includes removing paint from the glu-lam beams that support the swooping roof so the beams will appear as they originally did when the building opened early in 1961.
Another skirmish in the renovation involves the so-called “Pine Court,” a lower-level plaza on the southeast side of the building. Originally vacant when the Coliseum opened, a brick plaza and concrete planter were added later, possibly in 1967. The plaza may have been designed by the Skidmore Owings Merrill firm that designed the Coliseum, although it seems to relate to a different design aesthetic.
The PDC has asked the landmarks commission to remove the Pine Court plaza while it works with veterans organizations to design a more fitting memorial in the same location. The plaza includes a low memorial wall with names of soldiers killed in the Korean War. The commission, however, expressed reluctance to demolish the Pine Court before a new design is proposed. Brake said the PDC is working with a committee of veterans, but if past history is any hint, those talks are likely to be lengthy and boisterous. The delay should provide more time to investigate the history and design of the Pine Court, in the event that strong sentiment emerges to save it.