The Oregon State Capitol uniquely captures a particular moment in time when traditional classicism of civic buildings was transitioning to modernism. Built in 1936–1938, following a fire that destroyed its classically inspired predecessor, the new capitol building illustrates how mid-twentieth century individuals envisioned a civic building that was resolutely modern but still conveyed a sense of tradition.
Numerous Oregon cities vied to become the territorial, and then the state, capital. Oregon City received the honor first, but then a vigorous struggle developed between Corvallis and Salem. In 1851, the territorial legislature voted to place the capitol at Salem. Despite continued opposition to that location, in 1854 the legislature authorized the construction of a wood, Greek Revival capitol building. Construction was barely finished before it burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Except for a one year session of the territorial legislature in Corvallis, the legislature returned to Salem in 1859, meeting in an adapted business building and remaining in that improvised building even after statehood was achieved in 1859. They remained there until 1876, when a new, domed, Renaissance Revival building of brick and stone was completed to designs by architect Justus Krumbein.
In 1935, a fire started in the basement archives engulfing the building, leaving only an empty shell. The legislature set up a building committee and approved a statewide design competition, but federal funding for nearly half the building’s budget necessitated expanding the competition nationwide. Undoubtedly because construction activity was so diminished during the ongoing Great Depression, 123 entries were submitted from across the country. These ranged from classical domed entries to stylized modernistic designs, and included a few truly modern schemes, particularly that of William Lescaze.
Because of the generally conservative nature of the competition jury, the entry selected was a design submitted by an ad-hoc collaboration of architect Francis Keally and the firm of Trowbridge and Livingston, both of New York City. It was a striking fusion of a strongly symmetrical plan organization with a modern reduction in ornament, to be sheathed in white marble, and featuring a large dramatic cylindrical flat-topped “dome.” Finished in 1938, the new capitol building represented a unique amalgamation of clear classical planning with severe modernist reductionism. Today, most historians would categorize the capitol building as Art Deco, though it features none of the typical zig-zag ornamentation; others have described as “Moderne.” When architect Francis Keally was asked about the building’s style he responded cryptically: “We can’t tag the style of architecture. It was built for Oregon, and was based on early Oregon history.”
Because the building project occurred during the Great Depression and was a PWA project, nationally prominent mural painters (Frank H. Schwarz and Barry Faulkner) and sculptors (particularly Ulric Ellerhusen) were brought in to embellish the exterior and the interior walls. Murals by Schwarz and Faulkner in the central rotunda depict four events of Oregon’s early history, while their murals in the House and Senate chambers focus on two further historical events. Though the building was neither bold nor original in its plan and elevation, especially by the late 1930s, the site-specific art works so abundantly incorporated inside and out, are wonderful exemplars of social realism as practiced during the Depression.
Due to budget restrictions imposed on its planning and construction, the Oregon State Capitol confronted serious space constraints from the moment it was completed. Space limitations became critical with the expansion of state government during the middle of the twentieth century, especially in the decades that followed the 1935 fire. In 1977–1978, two large, blocky additions designed by Wolf, Zimmer, Gunsul, Frasca Partnership of Portland were added to flank the rear of the capitol, matching it in style, materials, and detail. Earthquake damage in 1993, particularly to the dome, initiated a seismic upgrade that was completed in 1995. In 2002, a solar array was installed on the roof, making this the first state capitol building to be powered by the sun. Except for Sundays, the building is open to the public.
Castro, Ricardo Leon. The New Oregon State Capitol Building: Events, Sources, and Controversies About its Design. Master’s thesis, University of Oregon, 1976.
Fuller, Tom. Oregon’s Capitol Buildings. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
Potter, Elizabeth W. “Oregon State Capitol.” The Oregon Encyclopedia. Accessed May 22, 2017. www.oregonencyclopedia.org.
Thrane, Susan W. State houses: America's 50 state capitol buildings. Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 2005.
Willingham, William F. “Architecture of the Oregon State Capitol.” Oregon Historical Quarterly114 (2013): 94-107.