Posted by Randy Leonard
The Oriental Theatre on Grand Avenue. The huge Union Gospel Mission’s neon sign “Jesus, the Light of the World” that lit up 6th and West Burnside. The Espresso Café (a 60’s Rock café on SW 13th around the corner from Jake’s). Those landmarks—treasured pieces of Portland’s past—are gone now. However, there remains one, iconic landmark that has harkened to all those coming from east Portland to downtown since before my first visit to Santa at the old downtown Meier & Frank: the ”Made In Oregon” sign.
It is true that the sign has changed over the years. It was created in 1940 by White Satin Sugar and originally displayed their logo. In 1959, the sign was changed to White Stag and in 1997 the sign changed to its current phrase, “Made in Oregon”. Very recently, the University of Oregon submitted an application to the Portland Landmarks Commission to change the sign to read “University of Oregon.”
The University of Oregon’s proposed change is not, as some may lead you to believe, simply about changing the letters of the sign to reflect the newest tenant occupying the building. While the University of Oregon is rightfully proud of its many accomplishments, both academic and extra-curricular, it is also an institution that is now and forever associated with its home base—Eugene, Oregon. White Satin Sugar, White Stag and Made in Oregon have each been proud, Portland-based businesses whose identities were as closely tied to Portland as their products were. Granting the University’s application to change the sign would fly in the face of that long and proud Portland history.
The sign is seen all over the world when major events like the NCAA basketball tournament and the Davis Cup come to Portland, as well as in movies, reality TV shows, and coffee table books. It is an icon that is readily associated with Portland, and a visual cue that is as uniquely Portland as anything in our cityscape. Changing the sign from a neutral City of Portland-oriented institution to a Eugene, Oregon based school that is well recognized in its own right seriously degrades the value of the icon to an entire community and commandeers it for the narrow purpose of institutional self-indulgence.
Portland State University is, quite understandably, offended that the University of Oregon would come into its back yard and stake claim to the iconic Made in Oregon sign. It would not be unlike the reaction the residents of Eugene would have if Portland State University acquired the sign rights on top of Skinner Butte overlooking downtown Eugene and put up a garish neon “Portland State University” sign for all to see. The degree of disrespect that such an undertaking involves makes a Portland State sign in Eugene a far-fetched thing to consider, but somehow, the University of Oregon is vigorously pursuing the same degree of disrespect toward both Portland State and the City at large.
I met with University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer last October 9th to relay the concerns many Portlanders and I have with his plans for the sign. To be polite, he did not respond in a productive way. I felt as though I was explaining to a house guest why having the TV on late at night was disturbing our family and he reminded me, in an offended tone, that I should consider myself lucky he was visiting me at all given his vast success and wealth.
After our meeting, I talked with some of my colleagues on the council and on December 12, 2008, I sent Mr. Frohnmayer a letter offering to have the City of Portland buy the Made In Oregon sign, subject to City Council approval. I carbon copied the Chancellor of the Oregon University System, George Pernsteiner.
To date, neither Mr. Frohnmayer nor Mr. Pernsteiner have responded to my letter.
Since that time, I have exhausted every potential political solution I can think of. It would appear that the University of Oregon is focusing on its legal rights and not on its relationship with the citizens of Portland and its sibling university in its quest to change the sign.
I believe the University of Oregon is making a mistake. They have done some wonderful things in Old Town by restoring the buildings they are using for their satellite campus. I appreciate and applaud that effort. However, that good civic work is threatened by the decision to proceed with their planned sign change.
Portlanders rightly assume that the Made in Oregon sign is more than just an advertisement. It is a sign that has proudly promoted Portland through each of the three Portland-based companies that have displayed their name on the sign over nearly 70 years.
I agree with that sentiment. I also believe the sign’s importance to Portlanders is unique and important enough that it should be a true public asset.
There are a number of potential strategies to ensure that the sign remains the historic, iconic symbol of Portland that it has been since my very first memories. In considering those various options, I will do what I can to pass on to future Portlanders the heritage that my generation was so fortunate to inherit.
Click here for KGW coverage of the issue on 3.24.09.