Off a quiet residential street in the northeast Oregon town of La Grande lies what is possibly the most architecturally outstanding outdoor staircase in Oregon. The Italian Renaissance Revival Grand Staircase rises five tiers up a hillside on the campus of Eastern Oregon University. Unfortunately, it is forgotten and deteriorating, the victim of ground movement, La Grande’s harsh winters, and the budget woes of Oregon’s higher education system.
Eastern, as it is known locally, was established in 1929 as Eastern Oregon Normal School, a teacher’s college. Inlow Hall, Eastern’s Italianate administration building, and the View Terrace and Grand Staircase on its north side were completed the same year. In 1980, all were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They were designed by John Bennes, the architect who designed the Hollywood Theater in Portland and numerous other Oregon public buildings.
Interestingly, Inlow Hall is a twin to Churchill Hall at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. But the La Grande campus is sited on a geologic bench which runs along the edge of town. It was this geologic feature which provided the opportunity for Bennes to design one of the great staircases sometimes associated with the Italian Renaissance Revival style.
Idiosyncratically, the staircase leads to the back side of Inlow Hall. The main or front entrance of Inlow Hall is on the south side of the building where the rest of the campus is located. Bennes likely meant for the staircase to promote a “town and gown” connection. However, the downtown core is several blocks away.
The staircase does connect to an older La Grande neighborhood and for many years provided pedestrian access to the campus for faculty, staff,and students who lived north of campus. The many landings were a chance to rest on the steep climb up the hill and provided views of nearby Mt. Emily on the way back down. Children who attended JH Ackerman Elementary School, a training school on campus, played games on the staircase as they went to and from school.
The link to the town was also used symbolically when the staircase was the site of a lovely graduation ceremony known as Evensong. Seniors in caps and gowns and undergraduates in white shirts and pastel dresses lined the staircase as dusk fell and a choir sang. At the end of the ceremony, the seniors descended the staircase into the town and their future. The undergraduates climbed back to the halls of learning.
But time marched on. Evensong did not survive the 70’s. Fewer people walked to campus. The elementary school was closed. The staircase began to deteriorate due to ground movement and the effects of winter weather. Maintenance, likely not considered in the opulent times during which the staircase was built, was deferred. As the deterioration continued, the staircase became a target for vandals. Some of the balustrades disappeared. Ultimately, the staircase was deemed unsafe and was closed to public access in 2004.
There is no current fundraising effort for restoration of this architectural gem. It is difficult for theuniversity to justify focus on a restoration when it must of necessity focus on remaining viable inOregon’s changing higher education system. For the community, revitalization of the downtowncore including restoration of an historic theater is a higher priority.
Many alumni and others do care passionately about the Grand Staircase. The EOU Foundation has an endowment fund where any donations for restoration of the staircase are deposited. One alum issued a challenge grant and memorial donations for a deceased resident of La Grande were directed to staircase restoration. However, the donor base is small, and a brief active fundraising campaign raised only about $100,000. Costs for restoration were estimated at $1.4 million in 2008 with additional funds needed annually for maintenance.
The Grand Staircase might have been rescued by now were it located in a part of the state where it had been seen, used, and appreciated by more people. But alas, this is not the case. So what is to become of the staircase? Where is a rich uncle when you need one?
Interested preservationists are encouraged to send donations (marked “Grand Staircase Restoration Fund”) to:
Grand Staircase Restoration Fund
Eastern Oregon University Foundation
One University Boulevard
La Grande, OR 97850-2807
For more about giving to the Eastern Oregon University Foundation, see http://www.eou.edu/foundation/giving/.
Anne’s husband Gary, an amateur photographer, took the pictures of the staircase in its current state. The pictures turned out to be his last as he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly the next day. Anne would like to dedicate this article to the memory of her husband.