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History and Culture

Oregon Capitol Building Turns 75 Years Old

The original two went up in flames, but Oregon's third and longest standing state capitol will turn 75 years old on October 1.

I work in the capitol every day, but have never taken a tour -- until now.

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

"I was born the year the capitol was built and so I think I have a special feeling about the building," she says. "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.

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

That's because Oregon was 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.

It has what seems to me a traditional feel to it. But from the outside it has a non-traditional look to it.

Bell says, "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.

Bell says it's a hit with schoolchildren. "Lots of kids have had the chance to sit in it and pretend to be governor."

I ask Bell if I could sit in the chair.

“I think you better do it,” she says.

I'm then a little bit of a snoop and I look in some of the drawers, which sadly appear to be empty. I better not tell people about that, but there are a lot of pens in there, ceremonial pens.

Maybe I'd better get away from this desk before I cause any trouble.

I ask Bell what the one thing most people that come to the capitol don't see, but that she wishes they would.

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.

"This room here is dedicated to Senator Kathryn Clarke who was the first woman elected to the Oregon Senate," Goulding says. "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.

"Certain articles were actually carried out of the building as it was on fire," Goulding adds. "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 $300 million 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: When you give tours or when you have given tours in the past, do people want to go see where the press work?

"I have never been asked to go see where the press works," Bell answers.

I'm crushed. It's some really great cubicles down there.

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

She's very kind.

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

On the Web:

Oregon State Capitol 75th Anniversary - Oregon State Library
Schedule of events - Oregon Legislature