Should Portland Save the Memorial Coliseum?

A small group of preservationists want to rescue the 55-year-old gray box from demolition.

By Lisa Dunn August 15, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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On sunny days, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum becomes a greenhouse. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the space with light and heat, and sunbeams catch floating motes of dust. Without the crowds from a game or concert, footfalls echo and voices ring larger than life.

“It’s so bright in here,” I say, stating the obvious.

“Yes, and imagine if the trees were gone,” says Brian Libby, a 44-year-old architecture critic, gesturing to the London planetrees and red oaks outside. “You’d get a full view of the city, and just light and more light.”

“Would people in Portland go for that?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” he shrugs. “We’d just do something like donate 10 trees for every tree cut here.” It’s another thing Libby—a longtime local journalist, sometime Portland Monthly contributor, and my tour guide—adds to his running tab of small touch-ups he would apply to one of his most beloved buildings.

This summer, the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the 55-year-old building a “national treasure.” The honor is purely symbolic, but Libby and a small group of preservationists hope it’s the first step in saving the modernist structure from demolition—and, ultimately, restoring it.

Portlanders are often blasé about the coliseum, which they know as the visibly aging gray box next to the Moda Center in the Rose Quarter, visited for the occasional Winterhawks hockey game or high school graduation. Some may have followed the saga of the estimated $35 million it needs in repairs.

To see the coliseum through Libby’s eyes is a wholly different experience: window panes that draw the eye up, a concrete bowl with a supple curve, a curtain that parts to reveal a downright theatrical view of downtown Portland, four massive columns that keep it all standing, a satisfyingly symmetrical canopy entrance.

“They just don’t see it,” he says, referring to the building’s many skeptics. “I want them to see the beauty—the elegant simplicity.”

We walk in a circle around the outside of the interior bowl, looking at illuminated photos of Mount Hood and the ’77 Blazers championship, won in this very building. The structure’s problems are more subtle than its assets. Without a functional kitchen, food is brought over from the Moda Center. Guest services is housed in a clunky, drywall box, interrupting the elegant lines Libby loves. I ask about the dated features: the brick red interior, the foggy plastic light fixtures, the rounded block letters and cramped concession stands that scream 1980s.

Cosmetic issues, Libby says. Easily fixed. And the cracks in the bowl and the concrete floor? Easily sealed.

“What about the leaking?” I ask.

“I haven’t heard about that,” he says. But he adds it to his list, just in case.

Libby believes the building, once restored, would add cultural and economic value to the city. With 12,000 seats, it fills a sizable gap in event-space needs: the Moda Center has 20,000 seats, while the next-largest venue after the Memorial Coliseum, the Schnitz, seats fewer than than 3,000. The problem? The building needs those repairs and operates at a loss for the city. Some, like city commissioner Steve Novick, would rather see it razed in favor of affordable housing. Novick’s October 2015 proposal—which Friends of Memorial Coliseum called a “grim, cynical quest”—would have sold it to a developer to build affordable housing that would prioritize veterans and African Americans, the latter a population notoriously pushed out of the area to make room for the coliseum.

When we’re outside by the curved canopy, the fountain below roars: cracked oil-slick tiles and four spigots that drool instead of spout. Libby yells over the water that we could fix the fountain, too. He envisions widening the staircase, making the fountain a gathering place for the neighborhood’s future residents. It wouldn’t take that much money. The sun is starting to make its way over to the West Hills, glinting off the aluminum running around the top of the building. The wide bank of doors are bent and scratched, but when you step back, you make out two visions:

It really is a beautiful building. It really is an aging gray box. 

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