Memorial Coliseum - Portland, Oregon
In 1992, the building held the first-ever game featuring a U.S. men's national basketball team stocked with professional players — dubbed the "Dream Team." Behind legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, the team scored an easy 79-point Olympic-qualifying victory over Cuba.
The Coliseum has hosted concerts by Luciano Pavarotti and Led Zeppelin; political rallies, such as the full house that turned out in summer 2009 for Barack Obama's presidential campaign; and other speakers, such as the Dalai Lama.
When the Beatles played the Coliseum in 1965, poet Allen Ginsberg was among the attendees, and it inspired him to write a piece called "Portland Coliseum," calling the light-filled building a "new world auditorium."
The Coliseum belongs to an age long before arena names were sold to corporate sponsors; many such buildings constructed in the first decades after World War II were named as tributes to veterans. Today a sunken garden remains, wrapping an underground exhibition hall around a granite slab paying tribute to Oregonians whose lives were lost fighting in faraway lands.
Yet ultimately it is in terms of architecture, more than for its cultural history or veterans' tribute, that the argument for preserving Memorial Coliseum has been focused.
Essence of Sustainability
Among the organizations that have written and contacted Portland's mayor and city council urging for the Coliseum be spared from demolition were the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Institute of Architects, and the Cascadia regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
Given the mayor's support for sustainable initiatives, one might wonder whether perhaps that last plea, from Portland's sustainable building leadership, may have been particularly influential in convincing the mayor to abandon the Coliseum demolition plan.
Portland has become recognized as an international leader in sustainable design and construction, trading top rankings back and forth with Seattle and a few other cities vying for the title of "most buildings to secure LEED certification."
More broadly, the city has established a reputation for sustainable culture that includes organic food and dining, bicycling and mass transit. Upon taking office on January 1, 2009, Adams merged Portland's planning department with its sustainable development office, becoming the first U.S. city to do so, according to Susan Anderson, the head of the merged department.
One of the Cascadia GBC's principal tenets in the organization's letter to the mayor was that reuse of buildings is a core principle of green design.
"Let's not only say 'preserve' it, but really preserve it," Portland architect Stuart Emmons also told city council in testimony. "Preserve its design integrity respectfully and make it into a sustainable best practice," he said. "We will be nationally chastised for tearing down Memorial Coliseum, or marring its design integrity, no matter how we spin it. We will be a poster child for what not to do. It's the wrong message to send."
Today Memorial Coliseum stands in limbo. Although the plan to build a minor league baseball stadium for the Portland Beavers on the Coliseum site has been abandoned, the City and the Trail Blazers — owned by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen — are about to engage in a public process to determine what function the arena will have in the future.
Since 1995, when the Rose Garden was constructed, the Coliseum has continued to host numerous events throughout the year, including the annual Grand Floral Parade during Rose Festival and the 2008 Davis Cup tennis competition. But the building has also fallen into disrepair, and it needs a clearer definition of how it differs from the Rose Garden.
Because Allen owns the Rose Garden and controls management of the City-owned Coliseum, some, such as William Macht, a Portland State University real estate professor and staunch defender of the older building, have argued that the Coliseum has never been given a fair chance to earn a profit because there is a disincentive for Allen and the Blazers to have it do so.
Although most ideas call for the perimeter form to be retained, the fate of the seating bowl inside is much less secure. And it's the relationship between the bowl and the glass box, as well as the experience of large crowds gathering inside but able to see out through the building to the city, that makes Memorial Coliseum a special work of architecture.
One idea being formulated by the Trail Blazers and their development partner, Baltimore-based Cordish Company, has been to fill the inside of the Coliseum with restaurants, bars, and a Nike sports museum. Another plan, forwarded by local developer Douglas Obletz, would turn the Coliseum into an amateur recreation complex.
If either of these plans were to succeed, the only hope for saving the building's signature seating bowl and its original function as an arena would be for these new amenities to be congregated in the underground exhibition hall that is wrapped around the Coliseum and its sunken-garden veterans memorial — a space that is large enough to have annually hosted auto shows and large conventions before the construction of the Oregon Convention Center next door.
Memorial Coliseum generated plenty of support from the community when it was threatened. But the city's record on historic preservation, both in the sense of involvement and in actually preserving buildings, is still spotty.
"The Coliseum is an example of how a lot of architects who otherwise don't seem to have much interest in preservation were banding together in some sort of preservation effort," says Val Ballestrem, education manager for Portland's Bosco-Milligan Foundation, a local affiliate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "I find that sort of fascinating and sort of disappointing, too."
For example, the Coliseum is one of the many historic Portland buildings that belong to an official Historic Buildings Inventory. But that list, besides having no legal power to slow demolition plans, has not been updated in more than 25 years.
"It desperately needs to be updated," Ballestrem says. "And there is no real mechanism to force it to happen. Or if there is, it hasn't happened. They just brush it aside and say, 'It's not in the budget.' Now with all the recent budget cutbacks, it becomes less important."
"I'd like the city to be mindful of its own buildings," says Paul Falsetto, an architect with Carleton Hart Architecture in Portland and the chair of AIA Portland's Historic Resources Committee. "Obviously preservation work requires a hierarchy."
If the city had an updated historic buildings inventory that listed buildings in terms of architectural significance and priority, Falsetto adds, it might have prevented the mayor from the unenviable situation he faced that April night at the Leftbank building open house: a room full of people hostile to your plans.
On Memorial Coliseum, Falsetto adds: "I don't think there was any inspiration they saw in it. They saw it as a big barn. I appreciate the problem of having two big venues next to each other like that. But one of the things I love about Portland is doing things more creatively. The Coliseum is a good test for the city, and I'd like to see us pass that test."
Memorial Coliseum will reach its 50th anniversary in 2010, which is generally the earliest point at which buildings can be considered for addition to the National Register of Historic Places (with some exceptions). Preservation advocate Ballestrem adds that the age of 50 also seems to be a kind of cultural make-or-break point for historic architecture. "Buildings seem to reach an age where it's going to go one way or another: be fixed up to its formal glory, or become threatened because they're deemed not useful anymore."
On July 3, 2009, Memorial Coliseum was unanimously approved by a state committee for addition to the National Register. A final ruling will be made in the fall. Listing wouldn't outright prevent the building from being demolished or significantly altered, but at least now this mid-century modern gem is receiving recognition as both a landmark of International-style architecture and as an irreplaceable piece of Portland.
Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis, Architectural Record, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. More by Brian Libby
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