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The iconic Grand Staircase at EOU has touched generations of students and community members as a link between campus and downtown La Grande.
Anne (Hanford) Olson remembers when graduation and Evensong took place on the steps. As the ceremony concluded, graduates carried their lit candles (the light of knowledge) out into the community. Today, the staircase is on the National Register of Historic Places but has fallen into disrepair. The Governor’s Recommended Budget includes funding for its restoration and historic preservation, which is currently before the Legislature for consideration.
Olson and her younger sister Marcia (Hanford) Loney, ’73, grew up at the base of the Grand Staircase, climbing it each day to attend Ackerman Elementary School. Although their interest began on a personal note, Loney said her passion for the project has become a point of regional pride.
“We need to identify it as the architectural treasure that it is,” she said. “When I started writing about the staircase, it was based solely on nostalgia and sentimentality, but with research it became apparent that there weren’t very many staircases like this.”
Loney and her sister got involved with restoration efforts about five years ago and have partnered with Restore Oregon, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, the EOU Foundation and the City of La Grande to continue building awareness and funds. Private donations to the EOU Foundation’s staircase renovation fund are designated toward restoration efforts, and will assist in returning the Grand Staircase to its original glory.
Support from the university and the EOU Foundation, as well as research by Loney, recently culminated in the installation of interpretive signs at the top and bottom of the staircase. Loney said the illustrated stories create a sense of place, and her sister echoed the feeling.
“The signs are important because they declare that this place is important,” Olson said. “They’re a symbol of the value of this public place, and that it’s worth preserving.”
The cultural and historical significance of restoring the Grand Staircase combines with its very practical uses, she said. It was and could again be a connector — symbolically and logistically — between campus and town.
“Everybody has a story attached to it that’s significant to them,” Loney said. “It holds significance to the community as well as the campus. I’m always surprised at how many people said they’d just go and sit there.”
Generations of La Grande children walked it every morning on their way to school. Olson and Loney were among them, and developed a curiosity about it then.
“I remember looking up the street, seeing the staircase and asking my mother what that was because it was so different from the other things I had seen,” Olson said. “Even as a small child, I knew on an intuitive level how amazing it was.”
Learn more about the Grand Staircase, plans for restoration and its status in the state legislature for funding at savethegrandstaircase.org
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