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Memorial Coliseum in a Fight for its Life
by Paul M. Falsetto

The Memorial Coliseum, one of Portland’s most threatened and undervalued cultural resources, finds itself in a precarious situation. Much like a veteran basketball player who is too old to compete against the younger, bigger kids, but still too young for induction into the Hall of Fame, the Coliseum is a middle-aged entertainment venue trying to prove its worth at a time when such facilities are rapidly disappearing. Six years ago the Coliseum lost its principle tenants and related revenue base to its state-of-the-art and much larger neighbor, the Rose Garden. And now, just nine years shy of automatic eligibility for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, it awaits the conclusion of a study that will determine its very existence.

Built in 1960, the Memorial Coliseum was an instrumental piece of the plan to elevate Portland into a major player on the West Coast entertainment and conference scene. Despite great success in this regard, the Coliseum’s importance to the cultural and economic development of Portland has since been taken for granted, consequently masking the structure’s undeniable historic significance and status. As to its future, City politicians appear to be taking a "wait and see" stance, the architectural community has been noticeably quiet, and the preservation community at large has not yet championed it. Forlorn on the big-time entertainment scene and stuck in a state of indecision, the Coliseum has come a long way from what was once a very enthusiastic start.

Moving up to the Major Leagues

By the early 1950s, civic and business leaders wanted to lure a greater percentage of the conventions, concerts, and sporting events that bypassed Portland due to a lack of suitable accommodations. For the city to grow, Portland required a first class entertainment and conference center, and in 1954 voters approved an $8 million bond to finance such a project. Planned to be one of the City’s largest public works project at that time, it was also determined to be an appropriate project to include a memorial honoring all of the City’s military veterans, and receive a name to reflect this tribute. After much deliberation, a site was chosen on the east side of the city near the Broadway Bridge, and the Portland office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was retained as architects.

The architects were charged with creating a multipurpose, flexible building that would accommodate a wide variety of uses, in part to ensure its economic viability. When it was completed in 1960, the Coliseum was, according to architectural critic Randy Gragg, "arguably the most advanced multipurpose indoor arena in the country." Capacity ranged from the 9,000 permanent seats within the seating bowl up to 13,500 through the use of movable bleachers. A range of small to medium-sized conferences and trade shows could be accommodated in the eight meeting rooms of varying sizes that surround the arena floor, and the 53,000 square foot Exposition Hall located immediately adjacent, under the entry plaza.

The Coliseum proved to be a success from its very first season, hosting a variety of conventions, concerts, ice shows, and sporting events. National events, such as the 1965 NCAA Men’s basketball finals and the 1970 National American Legion Convention introduced Portland to a wider audience. It was due in part to the Coliseum that Portland was awarded a National Basketball Association franchise in 1970. This team, the Trail Blazers, elevated Portland to national prominence seven years later by winning the NBA World Championship. Other sports franchises that have called the Coliseum home include the Buckaroos and Winter Hawks, two minor league hockey teams, and the Power, a women’s professional basketball team.

A Modernist Icon

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) was one of the most influential architecture firms in Portland’s history, and acknowledged as one of the leading firms in the nation throughout the postwar period. SOM created most of Portland’s signature buildings and planning projects from the 1950s, when they became established locally by buying out the office of Pietro Belluschi, up until the 1980s with the development of the city’s largest building, the US Bancorp Tower. Memorial Coliseum is considered one of the most successful of these signature projects.

SOM is widely credited with developing and refining the International Modernist style, evident by their seminal design for Lever House (1952) in Manhattan. The Coliseum fits well within this aesthetic, with its rather stoic face composed of four equal sides of floor-to-ceiling dark tinted glass and simple white fascia. Contrasting with the geometric clarity of the exterior box is the white, upward-curving entry canopy and the white, concrete saddle-curved seating bowl contained within. The clarity of design is reinforced by its structural composition. Four large, tapered cruciform piers placed between the seating bowl and the window-wall support four 360-foot long trusses. The trusses cantilever out to support the roof plane, from which the perimeter glass curtain wall system is hung. The curtain wall is braced against wind loads through the innovative use of wood laminated columns, which also provide a contextually appropriate material to the interior. From within the seating bowl members of the audience are afforded a view through the curtain wall directly outside, a very rare offering amongst sports venues. To allow the arena to be darkened, a one-of-a-kind system was developed to raise and lower fabric curtains from the top of the bowl up to the ceiling.

If buildings can be characterized as having personalities, then the Coliseum reveals two distinct personas depending on the time of day. During the daylight hours, a dark, serene, semitransparent exterior offers only a subtle suggestion of the white, sweeping curves within. This changes dramatically during evening events, when the building transforms into a lantern of light, brilliantly revealing the seating bowl and the swarm of activity within. The Coliseum offers one of the best combinations of sophisticated subtlety and curtain-lifting drama among entertainment venues in the nation.

With an understanding of its background, it can be said with confidence that Memorial Coliseum is an important cultural resource with historic importance. It was a principle player in elevating Portland from a minor league west coast city into the major leagues of sports and entertainment. A prominent building from a locally important and nationally recognized firm, the Coliseum is an iconic example of the style in which it was designed. Such buildings, when they come of age, are perfect candidates for historic designation, though it doesn’t appear that such a designation will come soon enough to save the Coliseum. Ironically enough, two of the reasons that provide Memorial Coliseum its significance – one, its usage as a sports venue and two, its International Modernist design – are also principle reasons why it is now in such a tenuous position.

The Outside Threat

Since a large percentage of a professional team’s revenue comes from game attendance, sports venues tend to be the first component sacrificed for the sake of franchise prosperity. Some of the nation’s most venerated basketball venues, the Boston Garden and the Chicago Arena for example, have been demolished over the past decade and replaced with larger facilities. By the 1990s the Coliseum became one of the smallest venues in the NBA, a huge issue when Trail Blazer ownership changed hands. Paul Allen, the team's new owner, negotiated the City into allowing him to build a brand new stadium containing a greater capacity and lucrative luxury suites. When the Rose Garden opened in 1995, all Trail Blazer games and most of the scheduled concerts were transferred away from the Coliseum.

Along with losing prime tenants and the associated financial viability, the Coliseum also received a new management team. While retaining ownership and responsibility for capital improvements, the City shifted operation and maintenance duties to the Oregon Arena Corporation, Allen’s firm set up to develop and manage the Rose Garden. The Coliseum has been in deficit ever since, losing $200,000 last year alone even though being was fairly well used for a variety of local events and Winter Hawk games. Deferred maintenance and aging mechanical and electrical systems will require an estimated $7 million investment in the near future.

In association with the age issue, the conferring of historic status on the Coliseum may be hampered, oddly enough, by its architectural style. International Modernist buildings have not yet been readily accepted as "worthy" of historic consideration, even though they are more and more coming of age for designation to the National Register. In fact, only one such building in Portland, Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building, has actually been so designated. The term "historic Modernist building," considered oxymoronic by many, hints at a much deeper dilemma. Modernist building do not tend to look and act like the previous generation of historic resources. Smooth, clean, machine-like buildings are not inclined to encourage the same type of sentimental attachment as does their more ornate and crafted counterparts. True to form, The Coliseum’s system of aesthetics, which provide it its character, may also doom it to a purgatory of historic disregard.

The Clock is Winding Down

If success breeds success, then failure, at least in the development business, sires demolition. The Rose Quarter, of which the Memorial Coliseum is the oldest member, has not performed as the thriving urban center it was envisioned to be. To remedy this, the Portland Development Commission hired a consultant to study the reasons and generate solutions. The final report recommended a preferred vision that demolishes the Coliseum and replaces it with a plaza and various mixed-use buildings. Presented to the public last June, the response was intense and unified – people of all diverse backgrounds and interests wanted the Coliseum retained. Subsequently Portland City Council has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Oregon Arena Corporation (OAC), directing them to produce a development plan for the entire Rose Quarter. This plan will, in a large part, determine the future of Memorial Coliseum.

There is a potential conflict of interest inherent in the MOU that could very well work to the Coliseum’s detriment. OAC has first development rights on the four-block site beneath the Coliseum, which could be converted into a sizable amount of commercial real estate. Obviously such redevelopment would greatly benefit OAC, so much so that it would be difficult for them to effectively argue any alternative. In fact, they have been as much for some time now. The City has offered no strong direction in this regard, instead hedging its bets by stating that certain public benefits can be achieved if the Coliseum is redeveloped, while also acknowledging that there is public benefit in its status as a community facility. This balance would obviously be tilted in favor of redevelopment if, as expected, OAC’s study recommends as much. Once this conclusion is published, the attitude towards the Coliseum will begin sliding from general indifference to open disregard, leading down a very slippery slope towards final demolition. If it is to have any chance of being saved, the Memorial Coliseum must be recognized as a structure of cultural importance and designated by the City as such. A viable use must then be found for it.

The Coliseum’s inherently flexible open floor plan, made possible by the simplicity of its structural system, allow it to adapt fairly easily to other uses. As an example, architect Phil Rude, who became familiar with the Coliseum though his work at SOM, believes the building could accommodate a world-class aquatics center. "The Portland area lacks such a facility, and the Coliseum is well situated to fill this need." Raising the arena floor to the concourse level could accommodate an Olympic sized pool, warming pool and a diving pool. On another tact, there has been concern that Tom McCall Waterfront Park on the west bank of the Willamette River has been consistently overbooked for summer events. The Coliseum, by reconfiguring the seating bowl and possibly removing windows from curtain wall, could become an ideal covered, open-air venue for many of these functions.

Other reuse scenarios for the Coliseum could be developed through an open minded and creative effort. Towards this end, the Historic Resource Committee, a subcommittee of the American Institute of Architects’ Portland Chapter, has offered its expertise and energy to take part in the Rose Quarter development study. At press time this offer has received no response from OAC. This is truly a shame, for an open and rigorous dialogue is exactly what a study of this importance needs, otherwise its conclusion will be undeveloped and possibly even misleading. The City Council, who commissioned the study, the people of Portland and the building itself all deserve much better.

This building reverberates with over forty years of cheers for national-caliber entertainment and sporting events. With the proper consideration and a concerned effort, the Memorial Coliseum could very well rebound back to a more mature form of its earlier prominence and functional service. This is a worthwhile endeavor, for by every measure the Coliseum is one of Portland’s most important postwar architectural resources. If left to slip into a quiet death, it will be a sad and sorry end to an icon of regional pride and civic self-esteem.

Paul Falsetto is an intern architect and member of the AIA Historic Resource Committee, which is working to raise awareness of the Memorial Coliseum situation. He is the author of the thesis titled "International Modernism and the Perception of Historic Significance," which received the 1999 Walton Award for Research Excellence.

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