Portland’s Modernist Civic Landmark Named City’s First National Treasure
Nation’s largest preservation organization encourages city and local partners to build on the iconic Veterans Memorial Coliseum’s contributions through a sustainable rehabilitation plan
The National Trust for Historic Preservation today named Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum (VMC) its newest National Treasure—the first site to obtain the designation in the city. The National Trust selected the iconic but neglected arena for its historical and architectural significance, as well as its potential to contribute to Portland’s cultural and economic vitality. As part of its National Treasure campaign, the National Trust will work with Portland city officials, residents, business community, local partners and other stakeholders to identify the best rehabilitation and enhancement options to assure that the modernist landmark shines with renewed brilliance.
Built in 1960 and designed by the globally-renowned firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the VMC has suffered from decades of underinvestment—placing both its current operations and long-term prospects at risk. Despite deferred maintenance and lack of up-to-date amenities, the VMC continues to serve the people of Portland, holding an average of 117 events per year, including Portland Winterhawks hockey matches, high school graduations, and the popular, century-old Portland Rose Festival’s Grand Floral Parade, which it was specifically designed to host.
In naming the VMC a National Treasure, the National Trust will draw on its considerable experience with historic places throughout the country to work with the City of Portland and stakeholders to identify and pursue a sustainable rehabilitation plan that fulfills the demonstrated market demand in the Portland region for a mid-size multipurpose civic venue. Rehabilitating the VMC would preserve its unique design, allow for new state-of-the-art amenities and enhancements and reflect Portland’s reputable environmentally friendly policies, all at a fraction of the cost of building a new facility.
“This is a great day for all of us who care about Portland’s historic places and their significance nationwide,” said Barbara Pahl, Senior Vice President of Field Services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “By naming the Veterans Memorial Coliseum a National Treasure, we honor the values that have made this site a treasured host to many of Portland’s collective memories and witness to some of the city’s most remarkable moments over the past 56 years. We embrace this opportunity to collaborate in identifying a path forward to assure that the VMC continues to contribute to a thriving civic life in Portland for many more generations.”
Among some of the most memorable cultural and sporting events to have taken place inside the VMC are: performances by The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin; speeches by Billy Graham, Ralph Nader, Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama; and the many unforgettable home games for the Portland Trail Blazers, including the famous Game 6 of the 1977 NBA Championship, when the Blazers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win the NBA World Championship.
“This designation is great news for both preservationists who love the history and architecture of the building, and for Portlanders who want to see this asset evolve and continue to serve an important role in our civic life,” said Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. “I’m looking forward to the National Trust’s recommendations for uses for the VMC.”
“We are excited about the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum’s new designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” City Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz said in a joint statement. “We are very grateful for the successful work of the advocates and volunteers who have been working to protect this important building.”
The VMC is one of the most significant International-Style Modernist civic structures in the West—its strikingly simple design consisting of a glass box holding a concrete seating bowl. The VMC was a technological feat of engineering unrivaled in the Pacific Northwest when built and features an innovative structural system that carries the building's entire weight on four concrete columns, leaving the arena and spacious concourse free of any interior supports. Designed in an era in which many civic buildings and arenas looked inward, away from the city, the VMC set a different tone with a view through an all-glass façade that not only looks outward, but brings the city itself into the arena.
“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, diverse coalition devoted 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.”
As an irreplaceable building that reflects its community’s past and enriches its future, Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum joins a growing portfolio of diverse places—from ancient sites to modern monuments—that have been designated National Treasures, including the nearby Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks in West Linn, Oregon.
To learn more about the VMC National Treasure and ongoing efforts by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and local partners to develop and implement a community-based plan of action for the site, please visit: www.savingplaces.org/portland-veterans-memorial-coliseum.
About National Treasures
The National Trust for Historic Preservation mobilizes its more than 60 years of expertise and resources to protect a growing portfolio of nearly 70 National Treasures that are threatened buildings; neighborhoods, communities, and landscapes that stand at risk across the country. Our National Treasures program demonstrates the value of preservation by taking direct action to protect these places and promote their history and significance.