Portland architect leads drive to name glass-enclosed arena to the National Register of Historic Places
by: Tribune file photo, Portland’s Memorial Coliseum could be nominated this month to the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination might prevent the arena from being demolished in favor of a new baseball park or other Rose Quarter developments.

Portland's 49-year-old Memorial Coliseum, with its 50-foot-high tinted glass walls and largest continuous curtain in the nation, could be on its way to a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

If that happens, it could effectively halt efforts to demolish the building.

The city's Historical Landmarks Commission agreed Monday afternoon to recommend that the building be named to the national history list. On June 26, the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation could nominate it to the national register during a meeting in Salem.

Portland architect Peter Meijer, who was part of an effort to save the coliseum in the past three months as discussions about a new baseball park in the 38-acre Rose Quarter focused on the building's site, said the nomination would protect the coliseum from future attempts to tear it down. It also could provide a slight financial incentive - through federal programs - to invest in the coliseum and renovate it for future use, he said.

'The rationale behind the nomination is that the city of Portland lacks any protective measures for historic buildings unless a building is on the national register,' said Meijer, principal in Peter Meijer Architect PC.

Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places triggers a public review process that could blunt efforts to bulldoze the coliseum, Meijer said. It also could force the city, which owns the coliseum, to justify demolition by claiming the building lacks 'economic viability,' he said.

'It may not be making money hand over fist, but there would have to be some real hardship to say that it couldn't be economically viable in the future,' Meijer said.

Although the city owns the coliseum, it is operated by the Oregon Arena Corp., which also operates the Rose Garden.

David Logsdon, Portland's spectator facilities manager, said the city collects 6 percent of all ticket revenue for coliseum events and parking in city garages during the events.

During the past few years, the city's annual revenue from the coliseum has averaged $475,000, Logsdon said. Annual expenses for the building have averaged $380,000, he said.

A 'transparent' building with a big curtain

Nomination to the national register often takes weeks of painstakingly detailed research to document a building's historic value based on its place in local history, the type of construction or its connection to a historic person or event. In the coliseum's case, Kristen Minor of Meijer's firm wrote a 36-page nomination report detailing the building's value to the city as a major example of International Style Modernism architecture.

Meijer said the firm invested about 120 hours of work into the nomination. The research began before Mayor Sam Adams and the city considered the building as the site for a possible Triple A baseball park in a plan to bring Major League Soccer to Portland. The proposed $88.7 million plan could require renovation of PGE Park for a soccer-only stadium and construction of a baseball park either in the Rose Quarter - as was originally proposed - or in Southeast Portland's Lents Park.

The City Council still has to approve a final proposal as the project winds its way through the process.

'We actually had done all of our research before this started,' Meijer said. 'We anticipated that this potential outcome was not going to be a benefit to the city.'

Construction of the coliseum was completed in November 1960 and it opened in January 1961 as the Pacific Northwest's only 'transparent' arena. Its 80,000 square feet of glass ring the building 50 feet high, providing a 'spectacular view of Portland' from the upper deck seats, according to Meijer's nomination report.

That is, when the windows aren't covered by the largest continuous curtain in the United States, according to the report. The fireproof curtain was designed by the internationally known architecture firm Skidmore Owings Merrill, which designed the building, to be lifted up and hidden in the last rows of seats. The curtain was constructed in 15 sections that zip together.

When it was constructed in the late 1950s by Hoffman Construction Co. of Portland, the coliseum was considered 'a technological feat of engineering and operation unrivaled by any other large civic structure in the Pacific Northwest,' according to the nomination report.

Today, the building has been largely unaltered. Its memorial fountain in the lower-floor courtyard with a black granite wall honor roll listing the names of Oregonians killed during the 20th century wars.

Until the $262 million Rose Garden arena was constructed in 1995, Memorial Coliseum was home to the Portland Trail Blazers NBA team, which won a championship there in 1977, and hosted major concerts by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Now the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League skate on the coliseum's home ice.

Meijer is confident the building will find a place on the national history register. The entire process could take about two months to complete, he said. Once the building is nominated, the real danger of demolition could be past, Meijer said.

'If it is approved on (June 26) it would be hard for someone to come in and try to take action on it after that,' he said.

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