Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill's Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon has been on the chopping block for some time now: since the city’s NBA team moved to the Moda Center (known also as the Rose Garden) next door in 1995, the building has struggled to find the funding necessary for maintenance, and since 2009 calls have been made for the demolition of the iconic modernist structure. The threat reached peak levels last October, when the Portland City Council nearly voted to approve a proposal for demolition before ultimately denying it by a narrow 3-2 margin.
Now, preservationists have a new designation to use in their defense. Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Veterans Memorial Coliseum its newest National Treasure, joining 60 other threatened sites including the Houston Astrodome and Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion for the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
One of the Pacific Northwest’s most significant examples of International Style architecture, the Memorial Coliseum was selected for both its historical value and engineering feats. The arena has played host to over 5,000 events in its 56 years, including performances from the Beatles and speeches by Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, and features an innovative structural system that places the building’s entire weight onto just four concrete columns, intended to provide spectators with unobstructed views of the city through the building’s glass envelope.
“We believe this mid-century masterpiece is poised to once again become a symbol of Portland’s highest aspirations,” said Brian Libby, member of Friends of Memorial Coliseum, a local coalition dedicated to preserving the VMC. “This building’s potential in its intended open-curtain configuration, with a 360-degree view from your seats to the outside, has remained hidden away even from Oregonians who have spent their lives attending the Coliseum. We’re inspired to renew its possibilities and build on its design’s cultural and economic value.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists National Treasures as “threatened buildings, neighborhoods, communities, and landscapes that stand at risk across the country.” While the building is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, inclusion on the National Treasures list allows the trust to provide the funds, organization, promotion and legal action necessary to protect places of history and significance. The designation does not ensure preservation, however – while many projects have been saved by the organization, such as Cincinnati's Union Station and Chicago’s Pullman Historic District, others have still been lost to the wrecking ball, including Bertrand Goldberg’s iconic Prentice Women’s Hospital in 2013.
For now, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum is still fighting an uphill battle. Two studies were published last year for the city; one of which led local reporters to believe that even spending the $35.1 million to $142.9 million necessary to upgrade the facility may not make the arena profitable when taking renovation costs into account, while the other argued that two possible renovation options "are predicted to produce modest annual operating profits for a period of 20 to 40 years," with the city's initial investment justified by the cumulative economic impact of the arena on the surrounding area. To add to the complications, the city’s growing demand for housing has made the site even more valuable to potential developers. The struggle between historical value and functionality is not one easily resolved, but with its new status as a National Treasure, the VMC may yet stand a fighting chance.
Correction Update: This article has been amended to note that multiple studies on the arena's economic viability have been conducted with conflicting results; also, a clarification was added to reflect that the interpretation of the first article was from a journalistic viewpoint, not a conclusion of the report itself.