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Salem's Pioneer Monuments
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Oregon's 1876 state capitol building burned down in 1935 and was replaced with a new building in 1938 in the PWA Moderne style.

1938 Oregon statehouse. Photograph by Cynthia Prescott.

1938 Oregon statehouse. Photograph by Cynthia Prescott.

In the mid-19th century, several cities—most notably Oregon City, Corvallis, and Salem—competed to become Oregon’s territorial and state capital. Oregon’s capitol building was constructed of wood in the Greek Revival style in Salem in 1854. It soon burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Some suspected arson inspired by the fight between Corvallis and Salem to serve as the state capital.

Construction of the second Oregon capitol building began in 1873. It was designed by J. Krumbein and W. G. Gilbert. Like many United States statehouses of the era, it was shaped like a cross and topped with a towering copper-gilded dome that was added in 1893. It combined elements of classical and Italian Renaissance architecture. Fire destroyed this second capitol on April 25, 1935. The fire was believed to be accidental.

For the third capitol building, a jury selected from among 123 design submissions ranging from classical domed structures to simple modern designs. The jury selected a compromise design submitted by Francis Keally and the architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston. The architects described their design as a 

“forceful and vital modern structure with broad and masculine feeling.”1

It is in the PWA Moderne (also known as Federal Moderne or stripped classical) style typical of buildings constructed using Public Works Administration funds during the Great Depression. PWA Moderne style combined classical symmetrical form with Art Deco decorations. A flat-topped cylinder stands in for a classical dome on top. The main structure is made from concrete, but the exterior is sheathed in white marble.

In place of the elaborate exterior decorations typical of US statehouses, the designers offered strong, simple lines sparsely decorated with architectural sculpture. Two large marble reliefs sculpted by Leo Friedlander decorate the front of the building. One depicts the Lewis and Clark expedition; the other features a family of white settlers migrating to Oregon in their covered wagon. A 23-foot-tall gold-plated statue of a pioneer sculpted by Ulric Ellerhusen stands atop the flat-topped “dome.” Both artists’ work were typical of pioneer monuments erected in the 1920s and 1930s. Nonetheless, Oregon residents penned numerous complaints about the artists’ work during the 1930s. They questioned the works’ historical accuracy and complained of their perceived modernism.  One complained that an “eastern sculptor [Ellerhusen] has pictured our Oregon pioneer as a smooth shaved gent, probably wearing rayon underwear.”2 Over time, Oregonians warmed to “Gold Man.” Today, it is one of the best-known symbols of the state.

The interior was decorated with marble. Murals by Frank H. Schwarz and Barry Faulkner depicting Oregon history line the central rotunda and legislative chambers.

The new capitol building was dedicated on October 11, 1938. In addition to building the new statehouse, the Capitol Reconstruction Project added a four-block mall stretching north from the capitol to meet the needs of expanding state government, including a state library. Stylistically matched legislative wings were added to the capitol building in 1977.

1. Keally, Francis; Trowbridge &Livingston. “Oregon State Capitol,” Capitol Reconstruction Commission Records, Oregon State Archives, Salem.

2. Walter E. Meacham to George Marshall, April 23, 1937. Capitol Reconstruction Commission Records, Oregon State Archives, Salem.

Roth, Leland M. “Oregon State Capitol” [Salem, Oregon], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012—, Accessed June 14, 2019.

Bentson, William Allen. "Historic Capitols of illustrated chronology." Accessed June 14, 2019.

Lynn, Capi. "Oregon Pioneer, aka Gold Man, looks sharp at 80 on State Capitol dome." Salem Statesman Journal(Salem)September 15, 2018. , Oregon ed.

Oregon State Capitol Building. Living New Deal. . Accessed June 14, 2019.

Potter, Elisabeth Walton. Oregon State Capitol. The Oregon Encyclopedia. . Accessed June 14, 2019.

Potter, Elisabeth Walton. Oregon State Capitol building of 1876. The Oregon Encyclopedia. . Accessed June 14, 2019.