Memorial Coliseum: Move it to save it

By Ted Hinds of Portland, Oregon. Ted is vice president of marketing for an automotive technology firm, and is a local activist.

Last month, as Memorial Day 2006 passed with the typical reverence it receives in contemporary Americana -- flag flying, wreath laying, ceremonial services, etc. -- I took a moment to deviate from my commute and stop briefly at Portland's largest memorial icon, Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Some fresh flowers and a couple of quiet visitors at the black granite wall where the names of those who left Portland to serve their country in times of war, but never returned, are carved was the only requiem to be observed there. Throughout the day, however, I took notice of the 'Glass Palace' that sits on the eastern bank of the Willamette River, overlooking downtown Portland. To me and many other long-time Oregonians, you must understand, the Coliseum is the memorial.

The debate over the future of Memorial Coliseum has raged sporadically since plans for the modern Rose Garden Arena that now stands next to it were approved. Local real estate developers and politicians seem to salivate at the potential of the land where the Coliseum now sits. Everything from luxury hotels to 'big box' department stores have been floated as potential uses. With the completion of the Rose Garden and Rose Quarter complex, they argued that Memorial Coliseum was obsolete (and many citizens took notice of the conflict of interest between the Oregon Arena Corporation and Coliseum). However, pro-business politicians, local developers, and even a Microsoft billionaire had one nemesis that none dared challenge too vocally -- Oregon's veterans groups.

Portland's Memorial Coliseum was completed in 1960 and was financed by an $8 million public bond. Support for the bond issue was gained by the provision that the new sports arena would serve as a memorial to veterans. The debate at the time came when the losses of World War II were only a decade away in memory and America was involved in the Korean War. What was politically shrewd then has become political dynamite now. Veterans' groups have repelled attempts to demolish the Coliseum since the Rose Garden was completed. Now that American soldiers are dying every day in Iraq or Afghanistan as a result of President Bush's 'pre-emptive' war strategy, it's doubtful that any politician is going advocate destroying Oregon's biggest war memorial any time soon.

Recently, speculation for Memorial Coliseum has turned to converting the facility into a recreational center, outdoor amphitheater, or other public facility. Portland's last public study of options for the Coliseum was completed in 2003, with considerable enthusiasm from Mayor Vera Katz. Various reuse options for the Coliseum were estimated to cost between $40 million and $100 million. Capital upgrades to keep the Coliseum operating in its current form are estimated at $10 million for repairs to the roof, lighting, plumbing, etc. Commissioner Erik Sten even lobbied the Salvation Army for funds from McDonald's heiress, Joan Kroc's, $1.5 billion gift to be used for community centers, but was denied. Any strategy that involved remodeling the Coliseum, it seemed, would remain prohibitively costly.

All discussion of the future of Memorial Coliseum to date, however, has focused on either reuse of the existing facility in one form or another, or its destruction in favor of the potential use of the land where it sits. Yet there is another option which has not been considered -- dismantling, selling, and moving Memorial Coliseum to a new location in Oregon where it can experience a new lease on life and expand its role as a monument to veterans to include veterans from the entire state. This option is not so unbelievable once the construction of the Coliseum is taken into account. Furthermore, there are several potential sites where the Coliseum could stand proud once more, and one in particular that just happens to be in the market for a new sports arena'the University of Oregon.

The famous glass facade of the Coliseum has no structural properties and is essentially a glass curtain between the outer footings of the building and the cantilevered, steel beams that support the roof system. The load of the building itself is supported by four massive, reinforced concrete pillars. The sections of glass wall could be dismantled without compromising the structure of the building, loaded on standard truck beds, and transported to a new site for reassembly. Likewise, the cantilevered beams could be disassembled and moved. Removal of internal fixtures like the seats and toilets could be scheduled at the same time as the dismantling of the glass facade.

The University of Oregon has started and stopped preparations for a new basketball arena to replace McArthur Court since the early 1990s, with escalating costs and difficulty in obtaining private financing being the perennial reasons for postponement of the project. Recent estimates have put the cost of a new, 12,500 seat arena (the size of Memorial Coliseum) in the range of $160 million to $180 million. By relocating Memorial Coliseum to the University of Oregon, much of the commodity and fixture costs would be eliminated. Veteran's Memorial Coliseum would proudly rise again with modern wiring, plumbing, and other infrastructure needs. The memorial purpose of the building would be expanded to include the names of all Oregonians who have perished in the line of duty to their country. If not Eugene, then perhaps Oregon State in Corvallis (which also has an aging sports arena), the rapidly growing Medford-Ashland area, or the state fairgrounds in Salem. Any candidate location for the Coliseum would benefit from a bargain on a new arena, while the City of Portland could use the funds from selling the reusable portion of the Coliseum for other needed projects.

In the meantime, Portland's Memorial Coliseum rests stoically in need of basic improvements, as it continues to host events ranging from college basketball to rap and rock concerts. What is certain is that Memorial Coliseum deserves more respect than it is receiving. The Coliseum is an architectural gem of the outside-inside style that was pioneered here in Oregon by such architects as Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon. The Coliseum is a historic venue where the Trailblazers won an NBA title, the USA's first 'Dream Team' debuted on route to Olympic gold, and everybody from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin would entertain local audiences. The Coliseum is four years away from eligibility as a National Historic Landmark. The Coliseum is also, lest we forget, a Veteran's Memorial.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    While all of the other Memorial Day activities were going on, Veterans For Peace chapter 72, held our annual commemoration at the "forgotten walls." That's where the flowers came from. We followed this with the dedication of the Peace Memorial Park. Click on the link for pictures of the commemoration and dedication.

    The one thing I never want to see again is a military parade. U.S. Grant

    As to moving the Coliseum, I have mixed feelings.

  • Garrett (unverified)

    While I understand the signifigance of Memorial Coliseum as a memorial it has long outlived its usefulness as a viable sports venue in its current form. I'm a fan of historical buildings and keeping them around for years. I really don't see the signifigance of maintaining the coliseum. The last time I was there I remember walking through the doors and being greeted by the smell of sweat socks. It permeated the air with its sweet stink. I could certainly see the idea of placing the glass structure over a new arena but moving anything about the inside of the coliseum is ridiculous. Everything from the scoreboard to the seats is outdated. I personally enjoy the coliseum for its sitelines and personal feeling and wish the Blazers would play a game or two each year in that building just for old times sake(I might actually attend a game or two). I think the land is far more valuable than saving the coliseum itself. I will probably be crucified for saying this here but perhaps a memorial stadium for baseball would be a better option. Yes it would cost up front but would pay for itself in the long run with taxes on the stadium concessions, tickets, parking and players salaries.

  • Brian (unverified)

    Looking forward, I suggest we not build sports arenas as memorials. It seems inevitable they become obsolete.

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    Wow, great insight. Maybe we should have thought of that 30 years ago? In fact all sports arenas become obsolete at some point.


    I can't remember when the last time I was in Memorial Coliseum since I've been outside the country for a long while, but I have fond memories of some great hockey games. Several years ago I attended Winter Hawks games there.

    I don't agree with the article's author that Memorial should be given to U of O or OSU. However, I do agree most of the Coliseum could be preserved and moved (maybe instead recycling the inside to be used for new seats etc.). It seems there is always favortism toward the "big 2" schools. What the hell about PSU? huh?

    The other possiblity is at some point there is always a chance (albeit slim at this point)that Portland could get another sports franchise. If the configuration were changed (having the bottom of the building deeper) it might be possible to add more seats.

    Frankly though, if this is left up to the politicans one of two things are going to happen. Either it's going to sit there and fall apart due to lack of maintence or they are going to tear it down. In either case it would be a shame.

  • TK (unverified)

    With all due respect, I can't believe this naive post ever saw the light of day.

    Given, as you state, that the outside shell is merely a non-structural facade, how do you propose transplanting the inner bowl? (or why for that matter?) It's a bare-bones, thick concrete bowl THAT IS PARTIALLY SUNK INTO THE GROUND. This isn't some Frank Lloyd Wright home you can just pick up and move. Believe me, I'm all for material recycling, but this sounds like an idea straight from the mouth of babes.

    If you want to really honor our local veterans, give them a place that people want to visit more than once or twice (or never since the Rose Garden opened) a year. To the Vets who are fighting the loss of the Coliseum as a memorial, I say 'get real'. This isn't a proper or permanent memorial, so please don't obstruct what's good for everybody. There's potential that a future memorial could be more of a landmark than this relic.

    It's time for all of us to take stock in our many, glorious Coliseum memories for what they were and the time they took place... and move on.

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    Personally I wouldn't think the inner bowl, the seats, the scoreboards or anything else inside would be moved. My guess is that most of us are just talking about the outside shell of the building (correct me if I'm wrong though).

    I agree with you that there needs to be a permenate memoral for those from Portland who have died serving our country. I would like to see the Coliseum rather then outright destroying it. Whether that is financially and structurally possibly I don't know. I'm not an architect.

    The other issue is what would be done with the land if and when it was moved. My understanding is Paul Allen has first rights to buy it and put something there. However, now it looks like the Blazers might be sold to someone else. The question gets more complex then. With new ownership (assuming it happens) do they get the same right?

    Hopefully the answer is no. If this all hypothetically gets to that point, I'd like to see an honest debate about what should be put there. If the land is just sold to some big developer who's going to put up a huge condo or something then screw it.

    There are lots of questions about the whole thing. This has been talked about for sometime, yet nothing has happened. It might be even longer before it does.

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    Sorry..the second sentence in the second paragraph should say:

    "I'd rather see the Coliseum moved rather then destroyed."

  • TK (unverified)

    OK, if the subject of moving the Coliseum only pertains to the 'shell' (I didn't read it that way because the cost savings in recycling wouldn't come from the non-functional shell), I have to say it still doesn't make sense. I realize beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the glass shell is, well, still a simple study in rectangular-shaped glass. It's nothing to write home about, and the memorial really has nothing to do with that exterior. It's just a location.

    It's time to mothball the Coliseum...

  • wiejo (unverified)

    I recall an article in the Oregonian about five years ago regarding a proposal to convert the "glass palace" into a commuter train station - presumably for the day high speed rail service between Eugene and Vancouver B.C. takes place. In my opinion, that is still the best viable long term proposal I've heard for re-using the site. Imagine a glass enclosed Portland version of Grand Central Station. Union Station is a historic and beautiful landmark on the Portland skyline. However, it is on the wrong side of the river to efficiently serve a high speed commuter rail line. I sure the "trains bad - multilane freeways good" crowd will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but that's my $0.02 worth.

  • Ted Hinds (unverified)

    Well, there was some more content that got edited down...

    1) I proposed SELLING the fixtures and commodities at salvage prices, not "giving" it all away. Revenue for Portland (another memorial, schools, parks, whatever), and a new lease on life.

    2) I don't suggest for a second reusing concrete that must be poured. Certain elements can't be reused, obviously, but would need to be re-poured. Within the footprint of the Coliseum wall, you could dig deeper and easily redesign to accomodate an extra level for suites and such. The lower level of the Coliseum is below ground.

    3) Now you can criticize the rectagular design to the glass wall, but you might as well criticize the entire Bauhaus and American mid-century contemporary style. If you don't like it fine, but that is hardly a legitimate refutation of the entire concept of minimalism and rationalism in design that Memorial Coliseum is an exquisite example of in civic architecture.

  • Chris Snethen (unverified)

    Some interesting thoughts, but they're a couple years too late. The new owners of the Winter Hawks have been quietly taking measurements inside and working on some significant upgrades, like putting a video screen back in there for the first time since Paul Allen gutted the place soon after the Rose Garden was built. They've got some serious dollars behind them and it may not be out of the question to buy it from the Rose Garden creditors outright. Wouldn't THAT be interesting?

    The U of O isn't hurting for dollars. If they wanted a new basketball arena, they'd have one. Once they figure out how to put a winner on the court (it won't be happening as long as Kent is coaching), the boosters will figure out how to get a new facility built.

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    That's good news that the Winter Hawks are putting money into the Coliseum. I hope they do consider buying it and saving it from destruction.

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