Oregon is an extraordinarily beautiful state with capitol building as cold and unattractive as a mausoleum. Compared to the grand capitol buildings of neighboring Idaho, Washington, California and almost every other state in the union – many of which were patterned after the nation’s handsome capitol – Oregon’s squat state house in Salem is anything but impressive. In fact, it is frequently listed as one of the nation’s five least attractive capitols along with North Dakota, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Mexico.
This was not always so. From 1876 to 1935, Oregon’s capitol building stood tall and proud with a soaring copper dome and Corinthian columns, like a junior version of the capitol building in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, the elegant old capitol was gutted by fire in 1935. Bids were immediately sought for a new building. The design chosen, submitted by a New York architectural firm, was modest in scope and faddishly Art Deco in style. What were they thinking? Perhaps the economic environment of the Great Depression was what kept the Oregon Legislature from demanding a design more inspiring and grandiose. In any event, construction began in December of 1936, partly funded by the federal Public Works Administration. The capitol building was complete in 1938.
Critics pounced on the underwhelming new edifice, declaring that its chopped-off cupola looked like a paint can, squirrel cage or upside-down garbage bin! The low-set, four-story building was barely visible above the city’s tree line. Its main entrance faced north, so it was in perpetual shadow. There were no fluted columns or grand set of steps to give the building majesty. Sheathed in white Vermont marble, it was stark, plain and uninspiring, hardly worth a photograph. Oregon deserved better!
Despite its architectural shortcomings, Oregon’s capitol is worth a visit. Check out the impressive relief marble sculptures out front of Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, and pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Around the building’s perimeter there are statues of other historic figures, an arboretum of native Oregon trees, a replica of the Liberty Bell, and a display of all 50 state flags.
High overhead, atop the flat-topped cupola stands a gold-leafed bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer. The 22-foot-tall statute depicts a muscular woodsman with an axe in one hand and a tarp in the other. This gilded Paul Bunyan is symbolic of the rugged individualism that characterized those who settled the Oregon Territory. (What about the women who endured similar challenges?)
Pass through the front doors into the rotunda and admire the large bronze state seal on the floor and the modest dome 100 feet overhead. The capitol’s interior has the solid dignity that the state’s seat of government deserves. Historic murals, friezes and portraits of past and present governors adorn the marble and travertine walls. To the left, doors lead to the Senate chamber; the larger House chamber is to the right. These august rooms are beautifully paneled in oak and walnut. Balconies to both chambers and the governor’s offices are located on the second floor.
Guided, self-guided and legislative tours (during session) are available. Volunteer guides provide facts and anecdotes about the building, governors, and the important legislative business that takes place there. For tour details, click: www.leg.state.or.us/capinfo/.
Oregon is a bit of a maverick state, so perhaps it is fitting that our capitol building does not fit the architectural norm. Whether you appreciate its Art Deco look or not, the capitol is an interesting and instructive place to visit.