BY BRIAN LIBBY
The National Trust for Historic Preservation yesterday named Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum its newest National Treasure—the first to obtain the designation in the city. The National Trust selected the iconic arena for its historical and architectural significance, as well as its potential to contribute to Portland’s cultural and economic vitality. As part of its National Treasure campaign, the National Trust will work with Portland city officials, residents, business community, local partners and other stakeholders to identify the best rehabilitation and enhancement options to assure that the modernist landmark shines with renewed brilliance.
Built in 1960 and designed by the globally-renowned firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Coliseum, despite deferred maintenance and lack of up-to-date amenities, continues to serve the people of Portland, holding an average of 117 events per year, including Portland Winterhawks hockey matches, high school graduations, and the popular, century-old Portland Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade, which it was specifically designed to host. A third-party study completed for the City of Portland last year finds that not only does the building continue to break even despite its disrepair, but restoration will increase its bookings and profitability.
“This is a great day for all of us who care about Portland’s historic places and their significance nationwide,” said Barbara Pahl, Senior Vice President of Field Services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “By naming the Veterans Memorial Coliseum a National Treasure, we honor the values that have made this site a treasured host to many of Portland’s collective memories and witness to some of the city’s most remarkable moments over the past 56 years. We embrace this opportunity to collaborate in identifying a path forward to assure that the VMC continues to contribute to a thriving civic life in Portland for many more generations.”
“This designation is great news for both preservationists who love the history and architecture of the building, and for Portlanders who want to see this asset evolve and continue to serve an important role in our civic life,” said Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. “I’m looking forward to the National Trust’s recommendations for uses for the VMC.”
Actually, though, the VMC doesn't need recommendations for uses. It is a successful multi-purpose arena, as the study City Council commissioned shows. The Coliseum's problem is that City Council has not approved the funds needed for a restoration that will only lead to more profits.
“We are excited about the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum’s new designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz said in a joint statement. “We are very grateful for the successful work of the advocates and volunteers who have been working to protect this important building.”
I also had the good fortune to speak at yesterday's ceremony, in my role as the co-chair of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum. "Veterans Memorial Coliseum is a building that we have a lot of passion for, whether it’s as a work of timeless midcentury-modern architecture, as a veterans’ memorial, or as a community gathering place for generations of Oregonians," I said to begin the National Treasure press conference. "We know that great cities preserve and protect their most important landmarks, not just for cultural and historic factors but because great places have enduring economic value."
"Over the past seven years, the Coliseum stayed busy, but it has also existed in a kind of Purgatory, unable to get the restoration that it, like any building, always ultimately needs. We believe there is a strong economic case for restoring Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The city’s own third-party study, completed last year, showed that not only does the building continue to break even in its disrepair, but restoring the Coliseum would increase profitability. The Coliseum fulfills an important size niche in the local market, larger than the downtown auditoriums topping out at around 3,000 seats but more intimate than the 20,000-seat Moda Center next door. We believe the Coliseum can be a cultural centerpiece of a high-density, transit oriented district."
But rather than share with you the rest of my own comments, I'd like to share a statement from Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton, which was also read at the event yesterday:
"39 years ago this week, right here, on the banks of the powerful and majestic Willamette River, our beloved Portland Trail Blazers made history, changed the world and plotted a new path forward to the future…I was there then, as our Blazer team won the NBA championship at this magnificent shrine and temple —the Memorial Coliseum. I'll never forget that day, not only as a defining moment in Oregon sports history and my life, but also as a statewide explosion of joy, happiness and civic pride."
"Today most all of the other NBA arenas I played in have been torn down. But Veterans Memorial Coliseum still stands tall and proud because of its very special place in our lives and as a one-of-a-kind work of architecture."
Grand Floral Parade at the Coliseum (Jeremy Bittermann)
"Today I'm happy to take this well-deserved and long-overdue moment to celebrate with the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Portland City Council, and all Oregonians as our wonderful Coliseum is officially named a National Treasure."
"Although basketball will always be the first thing I think of when I reflect on the significance of this building, it is so much more than that. Its world-class design with natural light pouring into the arena, is an important and enduring tribute to the brave veterans who gave their lives and everything else for us in both World War II and the Korean War."
"I'm a proud, loyal, passionate and grateful man— whether it's for the beautiful game we call basketball, the rapturous power of music, especially when created by the Grateful Dead, or the natural beauty of my second home Oregon. You can also add our Veterans Memorial Coliseum to that list: a landmark that continues to inspire each and every one of us, and a place where we can all come together in joyous harmony. The spirit of '77 lives on, in and with this spectacular Coliseum. And with the powerful actions and commitment that we display here right now, we know that that will thankfully be true for generations to come."
"And forever more, I will always be able to say, that yes—I was there… In the spring of 1977… And also today—the day we saved our Glass Palace."
"Thank you Portland…Thank you Blazers…Thank you Oregon…Thanks for shining the light…Thanks for being the light…Thanks for making my dreams come true."