As one of Portland’s iconic venues celebrates a birthday, we remember the past and plan for the future.
Like so many people during the coronavirus pandemic, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum celebrated its birthday alone last month. No crowds, no fanfare. Not even a drive-by party.
But the 60th anniversary of opening this special place presents a perfect opportunity to reflect on its history – and dream about the future. That’s part of my job as the manager for Portland’s spectator venues program, and I want to invite you along on the journey.
At its best, this architectural marvel represents a gleaming symbol of the future and a memorial to those who lost their lives in combat. The building has hosted some of the most notable dignitaries, musical groups and sports teams in history. It has brought together Portlanders from all walks of life.
But the birth of the Coliseum was a controversial and painful event at a time when Portland was segregated, and the well-being of communities of color was given little consideration or justice.
As we look back over the coliseum’s 60 years and honor its contributions to Portland's cultural landscape, it is important to understand the lessons of its past so we can plan for a more equitable future – a future in which Portlanders of all communities are respected, included and honored as well.
Designed as a gleaming symbol of the future, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum is an important part of Portland's cultural landscape and a 60-year time capsule of Portland’s history and community life.
A testament to the optimistic outlook of the 1950s, the “Glass Palace” opened its doors on Nov. 3, 1960 to a sell-out crowd of 10,000. Events included an opening ceremony with Gov. Mark Hatfield and a Holiday on Ice show. Renamed “Veterans Memorial Coliseum” in 2011 to accentuate the building's role as a tribute to veterans of World War II and the Korean War, the building stands as a monument to their sacrifice.
The enthusiasm in bringing this building to life was obvious in its dedication:
“This Memorial Coliseum is dedicated to the advancement of the cultural opportunities of the community and to the memory of our sons and daughters who have made the supreme sacrifice that all peoples of the world should enjoy their unalienable rights of life, liberty, peace and the pursuit of happiness.”
Siting the Coliseum on the east bank of the Willamette River on the Central Eastside was intended to spark positive effects, benefiting everyone in the community. However, development of the coliseum manifested the hallmarks of urban renewal projects at that time: clearing large swaths of land in older neighborhoods, often of color, that were declared “blighted” or “substandard.”
The result uprooted families and destroyed the social and economic fabric of many neighborhoods. As people of color were restricted to living only in specific areas of Portland at that time, many were forced to leave the city all together.
For the Lower Albina neighborhood, the project had a devastating impact. Mid-century Lower Albina served as the commercial, institutional and social backbone of Portland’s Black community. The collective dislocation caused by this project effectively razed the southern anchor of the Lower Albina neighborhood, displacing the social and commercial center of the vibrant district.
The Veteran Memorial Coliseum was designed by internationally renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Its iconic “International Style Modernism” architecture was unique for an event facility at the time.
The innovative structural system placed the entire weight onto four reinforced concrete columns with cantilevered steel trusses to support the 360-square-foot building – an engineering feat. The 80,000 square feet of gray-tinted windows create glass curtain walls, which display the freestanding oblong seating bowl inside.
From inside, the terraced, concrete seating bowl provides unobstructed views of the city. In recognition of its architectural significance, the Coliseum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Coliseum a National Treasure for both its historical value and engineering achievement.
The Coliseum has hosted concerts, family shows and special events. Headliners like the Beatles and Elvis Presley and more recently, Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper have performed there.
The building has been home to numerous professional and amateur sports teams including hockey, basketball and indoor soccer. The Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League currently reside there.
Before that, the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team held court from 1970 to 1995. Other sports events included the Dew Tour, NCAA basketball Final Four championship and Davis Cup Tennis.
The Coliseum has served, and continues to serve, a needed civic purpose. Celebrated dignitaries and politicians such as the Dalai Lama of Tibet and then-Senator Barack Obama have delivered addresses there. For 60 years, Portlanders have also associated the Veterans Memorial Coliseum with significant life events such as attending a high school graduation, watching a first concert or spectating at the annual Grand Floral Parade.
Today, the Coliseum sits eerily quiet while our community navigates a public health crisis, an economic recession and a racial justice reckoning. Like all spectator venues, the crowds are gone – and so is the revenue.
But this moment is not forever. Our community will recover, and the Coliseum will once again bring people together.
The City of Portland is thinking about the future of the facility, including possible reinvestment strategies to address the building’s aging infrastructure. We are committed to recognizing the Veterans Memorial Coliseum’s iconic design, economic and cultural value, and the important role it has played in Portland’s history and community life. The City's goals are to develop a strategy that will extend the building’s life and increase its financial viability, ensuring it will continue to serve the community for the next 30 to 50 years.
Thanks to Elizabeth O’Malley, Program Assistant with the Spectator Venues Program for her significant contribution to researching and writing this piece.