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Not Just Another Staircase

February 24, 2020

Written by: Marcia Loney, Friends of the Grand Staircase

The Grand Staircase in La Grande just might be one of Oregon’s best kept secrets.  With five tiers and 178 steps, it rises some 40 feet up the hill on the north side of the Eastern Oregon University campus.  It was completed in 1929, just after Eastern Oregon Normal School opened its doors. Architect John V. Bennes found the Italian Renaissance Revival style a fitting choice for the area, as the dry climate reminded him of northern Italy.

Photo courtesy of EOU Pierce Library

Today you can find the Grand Staircase listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  One renowned architectural historian recently wrote that “No other place in the country can boast a monumental exterior staircase of its scale, complexity, and beauty.”  

From 1932 to 1971 graduating seniors and underclassmen gathered on the steps each spring for Evensong, a pageant inspired by a story from Greek mythology. The Queen of Knowledge and her court presided. They were chosen because of their academic performance and involvement in campus life. It is worth noting that, although the school has always been co-ed, it was women and only women who were honored for their achievements in this way. Pictured below are photos courtesy of EOU Pierce Library. The left photo is the 1952 Evensong Court, and the right photo is from the 1970 Evensong pageant.

The Grand Staircase is one of La Grande’s most cherished landmarks.  For decades it served as the pedestrian link between the town and campus. Sadly, because of deterioration over the years, it was closed to public use in 2004.  Efforts are underway to fund restoration.

Friends of the Grand Staircase is a group of passionate individuals dedicated to saving the “college steps” and preserving and honoring their history.  Partners in this effort include EOU, the EOU Foundation, Restore Oregon, SHPO, the City of La Grande, La Grande Main Street Downtown, the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, and the Union County Chamber of Commerce. 

The Grand Staircase has potential as a cultural heritage tourism attraction and, as a result, could help boost the economy of La Grande, eastern Oregon, and Oregon as a whole. Even now, deteriorating and no longer opened to the public, it is an architectural treasure worth seeing. 

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Vote. Do you know of other important Oregon places associated with women’s history? These may be residences, business places, social gathering spaces, sites for suffrage and women’s rights efforts, burial sites, campuses, etc… Please provide all information and documentation you can to inform our Historic Sites Database.

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