|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 cant be called exactly photogenic
conceded the Oregon Statesman newspaper upon the modernistic
buildings June 18, 1954 dedication. Matching the weathers
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 couldnt disguise the stark body.
The 1954 building is Marion Countys 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. Willsons 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"
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
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 Courthouses June 18, 1954
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