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My View: Memorial Coliseum: a modern masterpiece

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 JEREMY BITTERMAN, COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF MEMORIAL COLISEUM - Interior of Memorial Coliseum's arena with the curtain open.

She is beautiful. She is iconic. She is Portland.

Our Veterans Memorial Coliseum is one of the most prominent and largest memorials to our veterans in the country and is one of the top modern buildings on the West Coast. A restored Coliseum is an opportunity to catalyze a new, vibrant district in Portland that is close to transit, close to the river and close to downtown with a glowing, mid-century building as its centerpiece. The Glass Palace can be an economic driver, a catalyst for housing and other good things that make a city great.

At first I didn’t see it either.

It was in disrepair. This great building turned out to be hiding in plain site. Overgrown trees cover many of its best parts and its concourse was, and still is, muddled with clutter.

The closed curtain, which blocks the Coliseum’s breathtaking 360-degree views, has made this “just another arena” inside. But in 2009, when the building was threatened with demolition, many of us started to look more closely and saw what the building’s nationally prominent architects intended in 1960. The Coliseum became better and better in our minds the more we observed and researched it.

That was confirmed when our grassroots organization, The Friends of Memorial Coliseum, found stunning archival photographs of the building by Julius Shulman, the country’s most acclaimed 20th-century architectural photographer. The photographs are amazing. Last spring, we also found scores of previously unknown photographs of the Coliseum in the basement of the University of Washington’s archives by a little-known Pacific Northwest photographer named Art Hupy. Opening the print envelopes with white gloves in the UW library last June, I got goosebumps. The people around me gasped.

Now it was clear: Portland has a modern masterpiece at an international level of excellence. The Shulman and Hupy photographs prove it.

The good news is that this building is still all there, mostly undamaged from years of neglect and ill-advised additions. Along with systems and regulatory upgrades and addressing deferred maintenance, keeping the arena curtain open most of the time, restoring the concourse to its original intent and removing the trees that screen the transparent glass encased bowl will do wonders to bring this masterpiece back to life.

We can do all sorts of great things with the Coliseum with a little imagination. In addition to continuing the wonderful annual Rose Parade tradition beginning in the building, every Fourth of July and Veterans Day the bowl could be bathed in red, white and blue lights visible from all over the city, a highly visible reminder of our memorial to our veterans for whom the building is dedicated. We could do beautiful lighting schemes at the Coliseum all year long to bookend with the Tilikum Crossing bridge on the other end of downtown. Portland: the new City of Light.

There are many exciting possibilities for the Coliseum if we get talented, creative people involved. Portland lacks another venue this size, and the Coliseum has an important contribution to make to our local economy.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum could be restored in two phases: the first to protect it and make it more attractive for more events, and the second would be a full historic restoration of the building to really make this Portland asset shine. We should do the first-phase restoration now with available monies and a little more investment. Along with this first restoration, the Portland Development Commission should select a group of our best creative individuals to lay out a vision for a district stretching from Northeast Broadway to the Convention Center to Lloyd Center, with Veterans Memorial Coliseum as its centerpiece. The Portland Public Schools’ Blanchard site and the grain silos should be considered for inclusion too.

This can be a district that includes lots of housing, places to work and event spaces. It can be a nationally prominent district that attracts more convention business, a close-in district that puts housing in an area that is not in one of our historic neighborhoods and whose residents can use transit more and our already crowded streets less. We need a long-overdue vision that calculates the potentially huge economic benefit of the entire district for us, with a glowing, spectacular Veterans Memorial Coliseum as its primary catalyst — a brilliant, long-term vision that excites big investors and attracts future investment to the district. We did it at South Waterfront; we can do it even better at the Rose Quarter.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum is a part of Portland’s history. It is a gem, filled with potential. We are lucky and so fortunate that the Portland community, my parents’ generation, the greatest generation, gave this masterpiece to Portland.

Stuart Emmons is an architect, planner, and co-chair of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum. For more information and to view the Shulman and Hupy photographs, see www.coliseumfriends.org. Emmons can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..