BY FRED LEESON
Here’s question that might be novel in the history of architecture. Can a single building have two exteriors?
The issue arose when the Portland Landmarks Commission on May 14 considered proposed renovations to the “exterior” of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Under Portland’s zoning code, the commission cannot rule on changes to an interior space unless the interior space itself has been designated as a landmark.
That distinction was troubling to two landmarks commissioners, who said the building’s unique “bowl-within-a-glass box” design makes the concrete seating bowl an essential element to the building’s external appearance.
“In my mind we really have two significant exteriors, the bowl and the glass,” said Harris Matarazzo, a Portland lawyer who sits on the commission. Matarazzo said he didn’t think it was appropriate for the commission to approve changes to the building’s appearance when the city has not yet revealed all the changes is hopes to make inside the building. He added that to his way of thinking, the Coliseum’s “interior” was located inside the seating bowl.
Kevin Brake, a project manager for the Portland Development Commission that is managing the Coliseum upgrades, said there would be “no modifications to the bowl itself.” Inside the Coliseum, he said the bowl would be fitted with new seats, plumbing would be replaced, restrooms upgraded, new audio-visual equipment and a new scoreboard. Outside the bowl, he said there would be changes to concession stands, lighting and differing paint colors.
When Matarazzo asked whether the building would look any different to an observer from the outside, Brake replied, “It will be generally similar in form and presentation.”
Paul Solimano, another landmarks commissioner, agreed with Matarazzo about the important of the bowl’s appearance looking at the Coliseum from the outside. Based on the detailed building history that led to placement of the Coliseum on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, Solimano said, “I’m not convinced the interior is not covered” by the commission’s jurisdiction.
But David Skilton, a city preservation planner, said the National Register listing has no bearing on the city’s own rules for regulating landmarks. Under the city code, Skilton said the commission’s only jurisdiction is over a building’s exterior, unless an interior space specifically has been given local landmark status.
The “exterior” changes include a new, better-insulated roof that will not be visible from ground level, and renovations to the swooping entry canopy that will better reflect the original design. The PDC had originally asked that the so-called Pine Court, an outdoor plaza that was added several years after the Coliseum was finished, be removed to make way for a new design. However, that element of the application was dropped. The PDC is expected to return later with detailed plans for the Pine Court and for the Fountain Court that was the original monument for veterans killed in wars.
Matarazzo cast the lone vote against the exterior changes, saying it was inappropriate to approve them without knowing the full scope of proposed improvements. “I can’t put aside what I think our mandate is for the purpose of expedience,” he said.
The commission asked, and Brake agreed, to hold an advisory session at some future date when all proposed changes will be presented and discussed. But given the city’s interpretation of the landmarks commission’s jurisdiction, recommendations from the landmarks panel about any changes inside the Coliseum’s glass walls would be advisory rather than binding.