The Benton County Courthouse is the oldest Oregon courthouse still serving its original purpose. Located near the banks of the Willamette River in Corvallis, it is also the oldest surviving example of five Oregon county courthouses designed by architect Delos D. Neer.
Corvallis was first settled in 1845, then platted and established as Marysville (after the Marys River) in 1849. In 1853, to avoid confusion with Marysville, California, the community was renamed Corvallis (a Latin-based invention meaning “heart of the valley”). In 1856, the Corvallis Academy was founded, going through several name adjustments until it became Oregon State College (now Oregon State University), the state’s land grant university. Aside from this now-considerable educational institution, Corvallis was also, from the beginning, the seat of Benton County.
The first county courthouse was a wood building erected in 1855. This small courthouse was deemed inadequate by 1887, and the county hired architect Delos D. Neer (1847–1917) to erect a larger structure. Neer became known for his civic architecture, including numerous Oregon county courthouses—for Clackamas, Washington, Lane, Polk, and Baker counties—and also his Snohomish County Courthouse in Washington. Of all his county courthouse designs, the Benton County Courthouse is the oldest one surviving.
Built in 1888–1889 for a cost of $67,145.41, the courthouse was sited on an open city block that had been planted with 150 broadleaf maple trees in 1861, many of which survive to this day. Particularly spacious for its time, the building features an I-shaped plan with broad three-story sections at each end connected by a narrower two-story center section; it measures 73 feet wide and 116 feet long. The lower walls, 32 inches thick, are of local stone, but the upper walls are of brick covered in plaster (now painted brilliant white). Although its architectural style has been described as High Victorian Italianate, it is actually more generic in character, though the lower windows have round arched tops and the upper windows are tall and narrow. Pronounced string courses run around the building at each floor level and at the spring line of the upper narrow stilted arch windows; brick quoins are found at each corner. The moderate cornice above a frieze band is visually supported by spaced brackets, doubled at the corners. Hence, all the essential signature details of the Italianate style are present in this original design.
The interior of the Benton County Courthouse has been largely restored to its original condition, which included removing mid-century dropped acoustical ceilings and stripping later paint layers from the elaborate original woodwork of the courtroom chambers. To make the building wheelchair accessible, one of the matched pair of carved wood staircases just inside the front of the building was replaced with an elevator in 1960—far more preferable than the installation of a projecting external elevator tower, which had also been proposed.
The most distinguishing feature of the building is the tall clock tower at the east end of the building, rising over and dominating downtown Corvallis. It diminishes by stages and its steep-sloped intermediate red roof section rises to a cubical square block that presents the four faces of the tower clock (now electrified and in operation), all capped by a pointed red roof contrasting dramatically with the crisp white walls. An embellishment of the clock tower is the cornice that rises and breaks, suggesting a Classical broken pediment. Occupying the opening of the broken pediment is an allegorical white-painted, cast-metal figure of Justice. Unlike conventional sculptures of a blindfolded Justice, which suggest that justice is dispensed dispassionately and equally for all, the Benton County Courthouse figure instead looks out over the city. Responding to the statue, an early judge reportedly quipped, “It’s high time that Justice saw what she is doing.”
Mines, H.K., compiler. An Illustrated History of the State of Oregon. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1893.
Powers, David W. and Paul B. Hartwig, “Benton County Courthouse,” Benton County, Oregon. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1977. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Stadsvold, Cy, AIA. Benton County Courthouse Study. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977.
Wiederhold, Kathleen M. Exploring Oregon’s Historic Courthouses. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1998.