Tucked into Oregon rural infrastructure package, $4 million to save a staircase

The Grand Staircase at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in 1949. (Photo courtesy of Eastern Oregon University)

In the early 1930s, when Eastern Oregon University was exclusively a teacher training college, students walked up the five-tiered Grand Staircase to campus.

The steps, built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, were unlike anything in the state and region, made mostly of Depression-era concrete and built by Oregon Architect John Bennes who designed the Hollywood Theater in Portland.

By the late 1980s, the staircase fell into disrepair, and was closed to public access nearly 20 years ago.

Anne Olson, a former La Grande resident, her family and university leaders took on the fight about a decade ago to save it. They finally got their wish.

Tucked into a $100 million rural infrastructure package passed by the Oregon Legislature in March, was $4 million in federal money set aside for the university to save the staircase. 

Olson and advocates say it’s not a pork barrel project tucked into the state’s budget, but the result of years of fighting for the preservation of a vital piece of EOU and La Grande history.

For those who grew up in the northeastern Oregon community or attended the university, the staircase symbolized the shared prosperity between the institution and the community. 

To watch it fall apart “really struck me as just so sad,” Olson said. “This staircase is such a big piece of what makes this connection between the school and La Grande.”

The fight to save the staircase

Olson’s family moved to La Grande in the 1950s, living in a neighborhood adjacent to EOU, which was founded in 1929.

The university established a public school on campus as a place to train teachers, and Olson and her sister Marcia attended elementary school there, climbing the staircase each day for classes. Marcia eventually attended EOU, graduating on the steps. From the top, viewers could see La Grande’s city blocks laid out in a grid and Mount Emily in the distance. Kids played on the staircase. Alumni married there.

The elementary school closed in the 1970s and the university stopped holding the graduation ceremony on the staircase.

Ground movement and weather took their toll and maintenance was deferred for other more pressing building projects. In 2004 the staircase was closed over safety concerns and became a target for vandalism.

Olson and her sister left La Grande for the Portland area for several decades, but she returned with her husband Gary in 2006, and began trying to bring attention and care to the staircase.

She found an ally in Tim Seydel, vice president for university advancement, who also grew up in La Grande. Seydel left after high school, but returned in the late 90s to work at EOU.

He’d been trying since then to get the university to fix the stairs.

First, EOU leaders needed to decide whether to just remove the staircase entirely if restoration was too cost prohibitive. But, according to Seydel, many alumni and people in the community were adamant that it not be demolished.

“Local folks said, ‘We need to do whatever we can to take care of this. What can we do?’” Seydel said. 

He and the Olson sisters worked with community groups, statewide historic preservation groups, the university’s alumni association and state and local politicians to drum up interest in the project.

“Any time someone was coming through town, I’d say, “Hey, let me show you the staircase,” Seydel said of visits from state leaders.

“People would ask, ‘Is this really that big of a deal?’ Or they’d say, ‘This is neat, we just can’t really find the funding mechanism to make it work,’” he said. “A staircase, in many ways, falls on deaf ears.”

One day, Gary Olson, went to the staircase to take photos of its deterioration for an article Anne Olson was working on for Restore Oregon, a statewide nonprofit committed to helping preserve historic state landmarks.

The day after, Gary, an amateur photographer, went into cardiac arrest and died. Anne said that she is carrying on his legacy in her advocacy for the staircase preservation

“Not only did I have this childhood attachment to the staircase,” she said, “but the desire to see this effort through.”

Making it a legislative priority 

In 2008, the cost for the staircase restoration was estimated to be about $1.4 million. Between then and 2014, Olson and Seydel and other advocates were able to drum up nearly $100,000 in donations, which was enough to get architects to inspect and draw up plans, but not enough to pay for the restoration.

“We tried for federal grants, for state grants,” Seydel said. “We made a run at it legislative session, after legislative session, after legislative session.”

During the 2021 Legislative Session, the project made it through several hoops to the final budget that needed to be approved by the Joint Ways and Means Committee, but was ultimately cut.

“We got close,” Sedel said.

During the February session, Seydel said Gov. Kate Brown helped champion the project and make it a priority for lawmakers. 

“She had put it out there several times, saying ‘This should have been funded a few years ago.’” he said. 

On March 4, the Legislature approved the $4 million needed to restore the staircase. 

Seydel said the university is preparing to submit planning documents and permitting applications to the city in the next couple months.

He said there are concerns that supply chain issues and material and labor shortages could slow down the work, but he wants to get started as soon as possible.

“It’s been a career long journey for me,” Seydel said. “Some people told me since this was finally funded, ‘At least we’ll stop hearing about the staircase over and over and over again.’” 

Olson hasn’t been back to La Grande since she sold the house she and her husband had lived in shortly after his death. 

But, she said, she’ll be there to celebrate with Seydel, her sister, and the Eastern Oregon University and La Grande communities once the restored Grand Staircase is unveiled.

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