|The original plat of Salem was
laid out in 1846 by William H. Willson, a former lay member
of the Methodist Mission. Distinctive characteristics of Willsons
plat were its broad avenues ninety-nine feet in width and generous
blocks about 300 feet square.
At the heart of the plat was the larger of two public squares,
a continuous open space three blocks long known as Willson
Avenue. Salem's most important institutions, including the
Methodist Church and the Oregon Institute (forerunner to Willamette
University) were located here.
Government buildings which initially stood at the east and
west ends of Willson Avenue eventually filled all but one
block of the central public space set aside on the original
In this east-west arrangement of government buildings along
Willson Avenue, the subtle slope of the land slightly elevated
the Territorial and State capitols at the head of the avenue
above the Marion County Courthouse at the west, or lower end.
The capitol dominated other government buildings and was
surrounded by prominent religious, educational, and public
From the time Oregon was declared a Territory of the United
States in 1848, controversy surrounded the naming of Salem
as the seat of government. Oregon City, the seat of the Provisional
Government, was one of Salem's rivals. Even after Congress
confirmed Salem as Territorial capital in 1852, there was
an attempt to relocate the government to Marysville (present
day Corvallis.) While designation of the capital was disputed
by supporters of the contending Willamette Valley settlements,
the Territorial Legislature met in Salem, generally, from
The First Capitol
In 1853 the Territory entered into agreements with local
contractors to erect a permanent statehouse, which was to
be situated on Block 84 of Willsons plat at the head
of the long central square, or "avenue." The partially
completed building was occupied briefly by the Legislative
Assembly in December, 1854. But the following year, the legislators
removed to Corvallis.
Once it was learned the federal government would not authorize
expenditure of monies appropriated for construction at any
place but the Territorial capital designated by Congress,
the legislature returned to Salem and reconvened in the statehouse.
The Capitol Fire, 1855
On the night of December 29, 1855, after having been in use
scarcely a month, the frame building burned to ruins. Although
arson was suspected, a formal inquiry proved that the fire
was not intentionally set. Whatever the cause, the statehouse,
the territorial library, and its furnishings were destroyed.
Prior to its destruction, Oregon's first permanent statehouse
had been a two-story, temple fronted building in the prevailing
architectural style of the day, Greek revival. Rectangular
in plan, it was oriented lengthwise, with its columned and
roofed porch facing west onto the open space of Willson Avenue.
While no documentary illustration was made of the building
while it stood, the legislative record gives a clear enough
description of its general character.
As initially planned, the statehouse was to have been constructed
of smooth-dressed ashlar (building stone) and its porch was
to have been formed of columns and antae, or pilasters at
the ends of the main walls. A stone foundation, following
this plan, was laid by Charles Bennett in 1853.
A. W. Ferguson, one of the statehouse commissioners superintending
construction, submitted his bill for drafting plans, specifications,
and detailed drawings in December, 1853. Abruptly, in an apparent
effort to stay within the limits of the appropriation of $50,000,
the Legislative Assembly passed a resolution changing the
material of construction to wood and the style of the Classical
columns to the more simply rendered Doric style. Accordingly,
Ferguson drafted new plans, drawings and specifications "in
the Grecian Doric order of architecture." The design
was carried out in all but certain of the finishing details
by principal contractor William H. Rector. (For example, the
original plan called for a lantern, or dome, for its gable
roof but this feature was never built.) Though very short
lived, the territorial building had nonetheless started a
classical tradition for Oregon statehouses.
Interim Meeting Spaces
For the next twenty years, which included the transition
to Statehood in 1859, the Oregon Legislature convened in rented
rooms in commercial buildings near the Salem riverfront. The
primary locations were the Nesmith Building and the Holman
Building located at the southwest and northwest corners, respectively,
of the intersection of Commercial and Ferry streets. Neither
building stands today.
The Second Capitol
In 1872, the State Legislature appropriated funds to erect
a new statehouse on the traditional site at the head of Willson
Avenue. Construction began in 1873 and was substantially complete
by 1876. The second statehouse was classically inspired but
it reflected a widely revived interest in the monumental architecture
of the Italian Renaissance. This building was far larger than
the previous capitol. To contain all the departments of government
as well as the legislature and officers of state, the building
was three stories tall and shaped in the form of a cross.
The long axis extended north to south the length of 264 feet.
Minor arms, or projecting entrance sections were centered
on the east and west fronts. Walls were constructed of brick
above the ashlar (building stone) ground story of native Oregon
sandstone from the Umpqua region. Upper stories were trimmed
with limestone and ultimately were given a stone gray finish
overall. The low, double-pitched roof had a modillion cornice,
raked at north and south gable ends.
When the Salem City Council authorized vacation of Summer
Street at the west front of the statehouse in 1880, the ninety-nine
foot right of way became part of the capitol grounds in accordance
with the Legislatures request.
During 1887 to1888, when the grand staircases and covered
porticoes supported by colossal Corinthian columns were added
to the east and west entrances, it made the approach to the
west front very visible. It was not until 1893, however, that
the new statehouse was crowned with the dome called for in
the original design by the Portland firm of Krumbein and Gilbert.
Including additional appropriations for the final improvements,
the new statehouse was completed at a total cost close to
the original estimate of $550,000.
The copper-clad dome echoed, as did those of so many statehouses
across the country, including the dome which Thomas U. Walter
added to the nations capitol in the 1850s. There
being no other superstructure like it in Oregon, the statehouse
dome became a symbol of state government.
Although symbolic, the dome's primary purpose was to admit
light to the rotunda. Owing to the structural support system
required for its addition, the dome was at once the feature
which most distinguished the statehouse and the principal
means by which the building was destroyed after nearly sixty
years of service.
The Capitol Fire, 1935
On April 25, 1935, a fire started in the basement of the
east wing and quickly spread to piles of old records in wooden
storage boxes. As the strong updraft in the hollow columns
enclosing the domes eight supporting steel lattice girders
pulled the flames through the rotunda to upper stories, the
core of the building was rapidly engulfed in flames. The dome
inverted and collapsed into its well. Despite the efforts
of the Salem Fire Department, the building could not be saved.
Volunteers succeeded in removing a miscellany of furniture
and records. Among the rescuers of records and furniture was
the young Mark O. Hatfield, who would later become Governor
of Oregon and a United States Senator.
Oregons early capitols followed conventional patterns
for the statehouses of their day. In the original capitol
of the 1850s, a simple, rectangular temple form, the
upper and lower bodies of the legislature were housed in chambers
on separate floors. In the statehouse of the Victorian era
the House and Senate occupied chambers on opposite ends of
the main story, which was the second level. The capitol of
Justus Krumbein and W. G. Gilbert recalled the legislative
heritage of the Roman Republic and the splendor of the Renaissance.
The seal of the State of Oregon was displayed on the ceremonial
west front, in the cover over the portico.
The Third Capitol
The next Capitol, constructed between December 4, 1936,
and June 18, 1938, was designed by the New York architectural
firm of Trowbridge and Livingston, in association with Francis
Keally. The Portland firm of Whitehouse and Church served
as Oregon associate architects, with Earl P. Newberry serving
as their resident representative at the site. Ross B. Hammond
was the general contractor.
Erected in the Modernistic style, this new capitol was built
on a reinforced concrete foundation. The original interior
structural system is a combination of reinforced concrete,
steel framing, and hollow clay tile. Exteriors are clad in
four to twelve inch widths of Vermont (Danby) marble above
a granite base which slopes to reveal a full ground story
at the south. The entire original building width approached
162 feet. The surfaces of the various capitol roof projections
are predominantly flat and were originally covered with quarry
tile. This material was removed in 1979, and replaced with
a conventional built-up bitumen roof.
The building was sensitively enlarged in 1977 in a compatible
manner by the Portland firm of Wolf, Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca.
Cleaned in 1986 and meticulously maintained, the capitol retains
its original function and, as we enter the twenty-first century,
is in excellent condition.
The capitol entrance faces north to the Mall, and features
two adjacent (perpendicular) blocks of tree-ringed parks and
gardens, bordered by arterial streets and flanked by five
state office buildings occupying separate blocks. Of these,
the Oregon State Library, Public Service Building, and Department
of Transportation, were designed to be stylistically compatible
with the capitol.
To the east and west of the capitol are two parks. Willson
Park, is situated to the west and served historically as the
focal point for the entrance to the original Capitol building.
This park was re-designed by Lloyd Bond and Associates in
1965, following its transfer to state ownership from the City
of Salem. The Columbus Day storm of 1962 eliminated most of
the early plantings of evergreen trees. Capitol grounds on
the east, generally known as East Park, extend from the Capitol
to the Justice Department complex on the east side of Waverly
Street. This complex is composed of the Supreme Court Building
and the old State Office Building, both designed by William
C. Knighton. East Park is distinguished by the presence of
intact aspects of an early landscape design, which include
trees, shrubs, and some of the sidewalks.
The cast bronze statue, "The Circuit Rider" by
A. Phimister Proctor, was moved to this site after the completion
of the new building. Also evident are remnants of the classical
fluted columns from the old Statehouse portico, which have
been arranged as an historical exhibit. To the south, the
Capitol is bordered by State Street and the campus of Willamette
Researched and written by Paul Porter and Susan Gibby.