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Oregon Capitol Building Turns 75 Years Old

Chris Lehman

You've seen those safety posters marking so many days since a workplace injury. Oregon's state capitol building could have one that says "75 years without burning to the ground!" The original two went up in flames. Now, a series of events scheduled next week will mark the 75th anniversary of Oregon's third and longest standing state capitol. The celebration comes as lawmakers consider a $300 million overhaul.

Credit Chris Lehman
The governor sits here to sign bills.

Frankie Bell is perhaps the ultimate state capitol tour guide. She's worked in the building for more than half its existence.

Frankie Bell: "I was born the year the capitol was built and so I think I have a special feeling about the building. I shouldn't admit that, but I am 75 years old."

Bell agreed to show me around the building and point out a few of the things I walk past on a daily basis without even noticing.

Frankie Bell: "The first place we go is the rotunda because it really exemplifies everything about our history. It's 106 feet to the top. There are 33 stars on the ceiling and of course Oregon is the largest one.”

Oregon being the 33rd state to join the union. Bell is in full tour guide mode now, and walks me through a detailed description of all the symbolism depicted in vivid murals around the rotunda. But standing in here, you just can't help but look straight up, into the Art Deco dome.

Chris Lehman: "It kind of has what seems to me a traditional feel to it. But from the outside it has a non-traditional look to it."

Frankie Bell: "One of the comments about the building after it was built was that it looked like a birthday cake. And it took a long time for people to get used to the idea that we didn't have the traditional dome.”

We head upstairs and stop in at the governor's ceremonial office. A big fancy chair sits behind a big fancy desk where the governor signs bills. And it's a hit with schoolchildren.

Frankie Bell: "Lots of kids have had the chance to sit in it and pretend to be governor."

Chris Lehman: "Would you mind if I went and sat in the chair?"

Frankie Bell: “I think you better do it.”

Chris Lehman: “I'm going to be a little snoop and look in some of the drawers here, which sadly appear to be empty. Oh, I better not tell people about that, but there are a lot of pens in there, ceremonial pens. I'm just going to close this drawer. Maybe I'd better get away from this desk before I cause any trouble."

Chris Lehman: "What's one thing that most people that come to the capitol don't see, but you wish they would?"

Frankie Bell: "Well, that's a hard one."

Bell thinks about it, then takes me over to see James Goulding. He's the Senate reading clerk, and he leads me into a small room directly behind the Senate chambers.

James Goulding: "Well this room here is dedicated to Senator Kathryn Clarke who was the first woman elected to the Oregon Senate. And she was elected in 1915."

The room is furnished to look like a room in the previous capitol building, which burned down in 1935.

Credit Chris Lehman
The seldom-visited Senator Kathryn Clarke room is decorated in the style of the previous capitol building, which burned to the ground in 1935.

James Goulding: "Certain articles were actually carried out of the building as it was on fire. And so we've brought some of those pieces back here to this capitol to display."

The current capitol survived a small fire in 2008, but big changes are possibly on the horizon. Oregon lawmakers will soon consider a major upgrade...in hopes of making the building more modern and more likely to withstand an earthquake. If approved, the multi-year renovation would change the way everybody at the capitol works, including me. As we wrap up our tour, I have one last question for Frankie Bell.

Chris Lehman: "When you give tours or when you have given tours in the past, do people want to go see where the press work?"

Frankie Bell: "I have never been asked to go see where the press works."

Chris Lehman: "I'm crushed. It's some really great cubicles down there."

Frankie Bell: "But I'm sure that if they knew you were there they would want to come and see you."

Chris Lehman: "You're very kind.”

The Oregon state capitol turns 75 years old on October 1st. The party is already underway and lasts through October 5th.

Schedule of events for the 75th birthday celebration

Oregon State Library history page