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Marion County Courthouse
An architectural historian once described Marion County¹s ornate 1873 Courthouse as a wedding cake. Following its 1952 demolition, some felt it was replaced a cake box. Marion County has had three courthouses, all in the same location. The story of the Marion County Courthouse, is the story of the growth of a State.

The 1952 version was more utilitarian and modern, Marion County's new Courthouse can’t be called exactly photogenic conceded the Oregon Statesman newspaper upon the modernistic building’s June 18, 1954 dedication. Matching the weather’s blue sky, the Statesman continued like the optimistic mother of a debutante, until it gets its dress-up clothes of lawn and shrubs. But those who have inspected its facilities have agreed that its durable practicality cannot be questioned. Yet dress-up clothes designed by renowned landscape architects Lord-Schryver couldn’t disguise the stark body.

The 1954 building is Marion County’s third official Courthouse since the 1843 Provisional Government divided the British/American disputed Oregon Territory into four districts. From the Willamette River, the massive "Champooik" District stretched east to the spine of the Rockies and south from the mouth of the Pudding River to California. The Champoeg name was sacrificed by the 1849 Territorial Legislature to honor General Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion, guerilla warrior of the Revolutionary war (a name shared by counties in 17 other states).

As emigrants poured across the Oregon Trail, this mother of Oregon counties gave birth to Linn, Wasco and other counties until its final 1856 boundaries were: the Willamette River and Butte Creek on the north, the Cascade Range on the east, the Santiam River and North Fork of the Santiam on the south, and the Willamette River on the west. Tired of paying $2.50 per month for rented quarters, the 1850s County Court selected Block 6 between State and Court Streets--designated for public use in W.H. Willson’s original 1840s plat of Salem for its first Courthouse. A new jailhouse was built on the SE corner in 1852, followed in 1854 by a 68 by 40 foot wood frame Courthouse in the center of the block.

For dignity¹s sake, four Doric columns costing $395 were added to the simple structure facing High Street. Total costs were between $15,000 and $18,000, although the County refused to pay $50 added by contractors Ferguson and Montgomery for "damned abuse". At first, surplus Courthouse space was rented out, but an addition and a new jailhouse were needed as County population boomed: 705 Euro-American residents in 1845, 2,749 in 1850 and 9,965 by 1870. Willson family heirs were contesting ownership of other Salem properties, but the County secured its claim to Block 6 through a "friendly suit" against the City of Salem.

The little Courthouse, moved in 1871 to make way for its grand successor, housed various businesses before ending life as a livery stable at the turn of the 20th century. The 1873 Courthouse, built by Wilbur F. Boothby and associates, blended exuberant Victorian styles, reflecting 19th century community pride in public buildings. Marion County paid W.W. Piper $4,500 as supervising architect for his elaborate French Renaissance design. Final costs for the permanent Courthouse were between $110,000 and $115,000.

The 34,710 square foot Courthouse rose 136 feet upon 33 inch thick brick walls, culminating in an elaborately dormered mansard roof crowned by a 51 foot cupola. A $1500 four-faced clock was set within the tower beneath a cedar rendition of Thema, Goddess of Justice. In 1905, the gilded lady was replaced by a 10 foot tall, 900 pound hollow copper statue nicknamed for her catalog order number. The County Jail was on the ground or "basement" floor, the County Clerk and other public offices on the "first floor" and the Courtroom was on the third floor with a fourth floor "attic" above.

Telephones, electricity and an elevator were later added and the 22 foot Courtroom ceiling was lowered to squeeze another floor into the aging beauty. But Marion County grew on; officials in drafty offices longed for sleek modernity. In the 1938 General Election, voters approved constructing a new Courthouse, but, still feeling the Depression, refused to fund it. Steel shortages from World War II and the Korean War further delayed the project. Following the War, a series of levies were passed to fund rising construction estimates. The County considered selling its valuable downtown property and building elsewhere, but feared Block 6 could revert to Willson heirs if not retained for "public use." Had financial support been available, the still sound 1873 building was too massive to move, although some advocated preserving the "obsolete" building as a museum or other purpose.

In the mid 20th century, new was intrinsically superior. The courtly 19th century monument was demolished. (A process documented in 1952 by photographers such as journalist-historian Ben Maxwell.) Also sacrificed was a spruce tree planted by a nineteenth century judge and promoted as the first outdoor lighted Christmas tree in the country. The great clock went to Mount Angel after its interim home in the Salem City Hall tower was torn down in 1972. Goddess No. 4762 keeps blindfolded watch over aspiring lawyers at Willamette University's College of Law.

That the third Courthouse would conform to the flat angular lines and Vermont Marble facades of Salem¹s 1930s state buildings seemed preordained.. Ten rail cars delivered 450 tons of 1 1/4 thick marble panels weighing 30 to 80 pounds each and numbered for jigsaw assembly on the concrete and steel Courthouse. Inmates and jailhouse cooking smells were banished to the top "penthouse" floor of the modern A-1 fireproof building; separate elevators meant judges no longer shared rides with prisoners.

The sun shone on the new Courthouse’s June 18, 1954 dedication and
all involved--including toilet compartments by W. H. Cress Co, Portland--were recorded by Salem newspapers.

In 1963 the County Court form of government which was: two commissioners and the County Judge was replaced by a three member Board of County Commissioners. Again Marion County outgrew its building and began leasing office space.

In October, 2000, Marion County dedicated the $34,000,000 Courthouse Square across Court Street from the 1954 structure. For the first time in its 157 year history, Marion County kept its old Courthouse.

Researched and written by Darlene Strozuts

Marion County And Its Courthouse, Robert Moulton Gatke, 1948 (reprinted 1973)

An Outline of the Marion County Court 1843 ­ 1963, Wallace S. Wharton, 1962; Oregon Statesman; Capital Journal


Marion County's second Courthouse.
Marion County's second Courthouse
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The Goddess of Justice being removed from the Courthouse.
The Goddess of Justice is removed
from the Courthouse. Commissioner Rice shakes the hand of a wrecking crew member.
Now located on Willamette University campus.
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Only one three story section of the second Courthouse remains to be demolished, 1952.
Only one three story section of the second Courthouse remains to be demolished, 1952. The spire of the Methodist Church is in the background
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Marion County's current Courthouse, 1961.
Marion County's current Courthouse, 1961.
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Courthouse Square, 2000.
Courthouse Square, 2000.
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