With Veterans’ Day hard upon us, we turn now to another tortured, conflicted, desecrated corner of the city, the ghost town that is the Rose Quarter.
Yes, ghosts abound. The cheerful illusion of an “entertainment district.” Those 7-foot mirages, Greg Oden and Sam Bowie. The unsettling echoes of Portland’s earliest Black community and neighborhood.
And deep in the shadow of a Coliseum that only memorializes our civic lethargy, the names of 1,682 veterans, including Allan F. Knappenberger, an Army private with the 358th Infantry Regiment in World War II.
Knappenberger was a Portland kid, a 1943 graduate of Columbia Prep who rushed to enlist. He was 19 when he reached Normandy on July 1, 1944, less than a month after D-Day. He died four days later, killed by a German mortar as he pushed a piece of field artillery through the French hedgerows, just up the hill from Omaha Beach.
Tom Knappenberger never met his uncle, who is buried beneath a white cross at Normandy American Cemetery. Tom was a young boy in 1962 when his father took him to marvel at the new veterans’ memorial at the Coliseum, and his uncle’s name on a sheet of black granite.
After his father died in 2001, Tom Knappenberger found a cardboard box buried in his bedroom closet. It contained Allan Knappenberger’s Purple Heart and the Western Union telegram his parents received announcing his death.
Those mementos inspired Knappenberger to write a 2002 opinion piece for The Oregonian, the beginning of a decades-long campaign begging the city to do better by this memorial to those who died so far from home.
“The city’s World War II memorial stands nearly forgotten, its 24 columns of gold-carved names fading,” wrote Knappenberger, who worked for both the Idaho Statesman and the U.S. Forest Service.
Twenty years later? Those black granite columns are in storage, awaiting repairs in the “sunken gardens” astride the Coliseum entrance. The reflective fountain is a sludge pond, the Rose Quarter a dead zone, the 60-year-old coliseum in disrepair.
“Nothing has been done. The building has gotten worse,” Knappenberger says now. “They can’t tear it down. They can’t fund it properly. So, it’s been in limbo for the last 20 years. And the names are part of that limbo.”
Limbo was inevitable when the 20,000-seat Rose Garden (now the Moda Center) opened adjacent to the Glass Palace in 1995.
“In most places, when you build a new arena next to an old arena, what happens?” asks Karl Lisle, the city’s Spectator Venues Program Manager. “The old arena gets torn down. That’s the normal. We didn’t do that.”
While the Rose Garden endured ownership changes, farcical bankruptcy proceedings and the Jail Blazers, the Coliseum tried to make ends meet with the Portland Winterhawks, prep basketball, small-time bands, and the Moda overflow.
When anyone suggested the Coliseum – which former city Commissioner Randy Leonard properly described as “a really good-looking Costco” – might better serve as the site for a baseball park, guys like Stuart Emmons and Brian Libby would sing its architectural praises.
But it’s far easier, it turns out, to designate the Coliseum as a “national treasure” than it is to find the $80 million needed for upgrades and code requirements at this warehouse on the Willamette. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum Reinvestment Strategy argues that “bowl upgrades” – almost all of the seats in the building are 1960 relics – will run $34 million, and “critical deferred maintenance” another $43 million.
“We’ve spent a fair amount of money trying to keep the fountain going,” Lisle says. “As far as transformational change or meaningful improvement, not a lot has been done. The Coliseum is long overdue for significant investment and renovation, and I’d extend that to include the memorials.”
Tony Stacy, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, has long pushed for the black granite walls to be refurbished and placed at the Coliseum’s main entrance, “where people can actually see them.”
But Stacy and Lisle agree nothing that dramatic will occur at the Rose Quarter without the approval of the Trail Blazers. The Blazers have both a ground lease on the Moda Center and operational control of the Coliseum until October 2025.
“Are they going to reinvest in the Moda Center? We don’t know yet,” Lisle says. Little will change in the Rose Quarter until the Blazers decide, much to Stacy’s chagrin: “They shouldn’t make the final determination on something that is so important to the veterans.”
When I asked Chris Oxley, the Blazers’ senior vice-president of government affairs and strategic initiatives, about Stacy’s proposal, he replied via email, “We lean more to the idea that the entire building was dedicated as a memorial.”
But Oxley added, “With the right planning and buy-in from the veterans’ community, we could certainly support moving the (granite walls) to a location of more prominence around the building.”
Knappenberger cares much more about honoring the veterans than he does about preserving the building. “I’ve always tried to stay focused on those names,” he says. “The whole thing was built to memorialize veterans, and now those names aren’t even displayed properly. I’m not married to the Coliseum. I’m just trying to get the memorial somewhere where those people are respectfully honored.”
They won’t be on this Veterans Day. What will it say about the city if that’s still the case another year from now?
— Steve Duin