Olympia Capitol -- A History of the Building

  • By J. Kingston Pierce
  • Posted 4/11/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5443
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Modern-day visitors to Olympia’s capitol campus are justly impressed by the main Legislative Building’s 287-foot-high dome and the equally broad-shouldered edifices that surround that central structure. Architecture critics have called the arrangement a watershed in American capitol construction. Yet building the Washington state capitol was in no way an easy task. Not only were there daunting costs and delays involved, but even upon its completion in 1928, critics derided it as a waste of tax dollars.

A "Monument to Extravagance"

Cuspidors costing $47.50 apiece? Outrageous. Or so it seemed in 1928 when silk handkerchiefs sold for a mere 65 cents and women’s girdles could be had for $1.25. Yet Washington had agreed to pay that inflated price for the ornate spittoons to be strategically located around its new state capitol building. No one objected to the spittoons themselves -- every well-equipped office had them at a time when many men, including state legislators, chewed tobacco. It was the price that was shocking.

To Governor Roland E. Hartley (1864-1952) those hefty cuspidors symbolized the improvidence he saw in the whole capitol project, which was begun before he was elected in 1924. He derided it as a "monument to extravagance in architectural design and waste and profligacy in furnishings."

Even on March 27, 1928, the day before state executives were to move into the $7 million Legislative Building, an occasion on which another governor might have pontificated at length about the grandiose new legislative center symbolizing the maturity and prosperity of his state, Hartley couldn’t resist launching a few final barbs at Washington’s spendthrift lawmakers.

"Today is an epochal day," he told reporters, "but it brings no joy to the heart of the taxpayer." Hartley worked up quickly into a bluster, the newspaper drudges scribbling wildly. "May the new building be a deterrent, rather than an incentive, to future extravagance on the part of those in whose hands the business affairs of the state are entrusted."

Taking the Criticism Statewide

Hartley’s attack was expected. A short, slender man with thinning hair who styled himself as "Colonel" after he helped settle a shooting incident involving Chippewa Indians in 1898, Republican Hartley had made a political career of slashing government budgets. His single term as mayor of Everett saw him take the ax to that city’s budget after his constituents, heady with self-righteousness, voted to rid their town of saloons and whorehouses which, at the time, happened to be Everett’s principal source of municipal revenues. When he ran for governor in 1924, Hartley promised to cut waste and reduce taxes, a platform that gained him a press thumping but widespread public support. It would have been out of character for Hartley not to damn the new capitol as an exorbitant expenditure of public funds for arguable public good.

The governor wasn’t the first to criticize Olympia’s capitol scheme. Rufus Woods (1878-1950), the feisty editor of the Wenatchee Daily World, had done a memorable job of it three years before. "If the voters of this state could get an opportunity to express themselves regarding this extravagance," Woods editorialized, "they would knock it higher than Halley’s Comet. Yea, more. They would come so near removing the state capitol from the city of Olympia that the people of that city would wonder where the lightning struck." Others had questioned the appropriateness of building a classical-style capitol in a state so associated with frontier aesthetics.

But Hartley took expressions of his disapproval to colorful extremes. He even loaded some of the new capitol’s "sumptuous furnishings"-- including one of those pricey cuspidors -- into an automobile and paraded them about the state as proof that others in Olympia recognized no restraint in spending the taxpayers’ hard-earned money. That the posturing governor had made sure his own office in the Legislative Building would be the most elegantly appointed of all was not a subject touched on in his speeches.

More Modest Original Plans

All of this bombast subordinated the rather remarkable fact that Washington, a state for 39 years and a territory for 36 before that, had finally been able to build a permanent statehouse. It had been talked about since 1892. One reason for the delay was the difficulty Olympia had in continuing to be the capital city. In 1853 it seemed the best place to seat Washington’s nascent government, because it was the area’s largest town, it had a newspaper and a hotel and, as a member of the first legislature phrased it, Olympia was "the greatest and about the only place north of Portland." Efforts to relocate the capital to Vancouver or someplace else (both Ellensburg and North Yakima were in the running, and Seattle tried on more than one occasion to become the state’s legislative seat) proved unsuccessful.

Then there was the problem of money. In 1893, a Washington State Capitol Commission announced that $500,000 had been appropriated for a legislative building at Olympia, and that a nationwide competition would be held to select an architect. From 186 submissions, the commission chose Ernest Flagg of New York City. Flagg was related to shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. An 1888 graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he had been in business for only two years, and recognized the competition as an excellent way to make himself known.

Flagg planned a compact single structure, heavily horizontal in orientation and dripping with ornamentation. It had a short dome and Corinthian columns running the length of its entry façade. The building was sheathed in Tenino stone and, presumably so that sunlight could play along its entry portico, faced directly south with its back to the vista of Puget Sound.

Income from government land grants was supposed to pay for Flagg’s vision, but by the mid 1890s, the legislature was wrestling with the dire economic fallout from the nationwide Panic of 1893. A foundation for the capitol was laid, but then work just stopped. Roadblocks were laid over the muddy paths leading to the foundations, and the state in 1901 approved purchase of the Thurston County Courthouse, in downtown Olympia, a castle of stone designed by W. A. Ritchie and completed in 1892, as temporary residence for Washington state government. Forces didn’t gear up to launch another capitol design competition until 1911. By that time, the state’s requirements and ideas about statehouse architecture had changed dramatically.

Expectations Become Grander

Until the Civil War, the majority of U.S. state capitols looked like overgrown county courthouses; at the best they were derivative of Greek temples. The classically designed Capitol in Washington, D.C., mired for years in construction delays and in disagreements among architects and federal authorities, and not completed until 1867, did not immediately inspire imitators. In fact, for decades it was considered inappropriate for architects to model statehouses after the U.S. Capitol. That didn’t change until after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, when national pride swelled in the wake of national distress. Illinois, Texas, and California slavishly imitated the Capitol in D.C.

Washington state's capitol building was instead influenced by the ideas of New York architect and bon vivant Stanford White (1853-1906). White, setting about in the early 1890s to create a statehouse for tiny Rhode Island, designed a structure with important differences from the national capitol building. He was a principal designer with the highly successful firm of McKim, Mead & White, and had trained under Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). He tended to work from concepts sketched on napkins over dinner, but was a stickler for precise detail in his structures -- from the Boston Public Library to the Shingle Style residences he plopped all over New England -- and achieved grandeur in design without verging too far toward the grotesque. Until he was shot in 1906 by a jealous husband, White was the most prominent architect of his era.

Most entries in the Rhode Island competition were of some European Renaissance style, with one Richardsonian Romanesque concept thrown in, and another steeped in gingerbready Victorianism. "McKim, Mead & White’s ... was the only design with any clear commitment to the new," wrote architecture historians Henry-Russell Hitchcock and William Seale in their seminal work, Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A. White’s design for a Roman marble palace in Providence emulated the national Capitol in some obvious ways, but it was hardly an amateur rip-off. A great white cynosure on a hill, the building is surrounded by expansive terraces and capped by a dome and lantern based on Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Flagg Loses Out

Ernest Flagg returned to Olympia at the height of debate over what was proper in capitol architecture. He was told that the legislature had finally decided to pony up funds for a Washington statehouse. This time the building was expected to offer more space, yet the Capitol Commission insisted that Flagg’s earlier foundations be used. The architect’s solution: "To provide a group of buildings; the principal one would be placed upon the existing foundations. This building would afford accommodations for the legislature and principal executive officers. ... The other buildings of the group could be added from time to time as they were needed."

Flagg naturally assumed that his commission to design the Olympia building was still in effect. In the years since 1893, his practice had expanded substantially. He had created St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, as well as the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. Most importantly, he’d designed Manhattan’s Singer Building, a 600-foot thrust of brick and terra cotta that more resembled a tall clock tower than an honest skyscraper, but which gave Flagg confidence when approaching the Capitol Commission a second time.

The commission agreed with Flagg that the best way to satisfy the state’s demands was to develop a capitol complex, rather than construct a single, all-purpose building: This plan was ultimately followed. However, the commission did not agree that Flagg was the proper designer for the job. Instead, the assignment went to a pair of virtual unknowns, Walter Wilder and Harry White. Both New York architects had worked in Stanford White's firm.

Governor Lister Seals the Deal

Wilder was a stiff-collared dandy from Topeka, Kansas, who had received his architectural training at Cornell University and in Europe. Vermont-born Harry White had taken his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both had labored for a time with McKim, Mead & White. The two struck up a partnership in 1909, and the Olympia job was their first major commission.

The building scheme that Wilder and White submitted showed clearly the debt they owed to Stanford White and his Rhode Island statehouse. They also depicted a rather different Legislative Building than we see today. Wilder and White wanted a taller dome, sculptures balanced off on either side of the north entrance stairs, a tangle of Grecian figures carved into the entry pediment, and another huge sculpture above that (perhaps of a horse-drawn chariot). The young architects planned to surround the Legislative Building with five office structures, demolishing the 1907 Governor’s Mansion to make room. They proposed an arrangement of stairs and landings descending from the Temple of Justice to what’s now Capitol Lake, as well as a grand promenade stretching into town, anchored at the capitol campus end by an imitation Arc de Triomphe and downtown by a new railroad station. Budget limitations eventually eliminated the promenade and much interior decoration, while the legislature objected to moving the governor’s residence.

The Wilder and White plan won approval over 37 other entries (Flagg’s drawings didn’t even make it into the runner-up pile the second time around), but many people in and out of government couldn’t see the sense of spending millions of dollars on a new state capitol when the Thurston County Courthouse was still serviceable. What pushed matters forward was the support of Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) for the new building, something the Democrat hoped would immortalize his administration. So enthusiastic was Lister that, when large sums of money were finally appropriated in 1917 to begin work on the Wilder and White campus, he threw a party during which he ceremoniously burned every previous administration’s plans for a state capitol.

Renaissance and Restraint

Stage one called for construction of the Temple of Justice, with the more businesslike Insurance Building rising next. After it was agreed that Flagg’s foundations could be expanded, the Legislative Building was begun. Completing this third phase was especially challenging. Consider the immensity of the capitol’s self-supporting masonry dome alone. At the time of its building, it was the fourth-tallest dome in the world -- rising 287 feet above the ground. The dome weighed 30.8 million pounds. Spreading that extraordinary weight out equally over the building’s frame and ensuring that ground settling in the years after its construction wouldn’t leave the building somehow lopsided were tasks that required precise calculations and a great deal of testing.

The results were well worth the effort. Better than the national Capitol, the Olympia legislative complex fulfills Thomas Jefferson’s early dreams of a government center on a hill. In Olympia, Hitchcock and Seale enthuse in Temples of Democracy, "the American renaissance in state capitol building reached its climax."

For a structure conceived in the beaux-arts period, Wilder and White’s capitol is remarkably restrained, its decoration intended to add style to strength, not just frosting to a monumental cake. Stairs leading to the north-side main entrance offer an imposing approach but pass beneath a largely unadorned pediment. The building presents colonnades on all four elevations, but most of the columns used are the same unfluted sort found on other buildings in the capitol group, the exceptions being those that encircle the dome and at the north and south entrances, which sport Corinthian capitals. Wilder and White concentrated much of their decoration along the roofline, giving that an anthemion cresting, and at the east and west ends of the building where gables are fringed with dentiled cornices. The site’s original landscaping plan, developed by the renowned Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, and mostly in place by 1930, added the delights of trees and gardens to the dignity of the capitol and its attendant edifices.

Not until the 1980s did the capitol’s rotunda take on architectural complication consistent with the building’s exterior. A facelift, completed in 1986, saw plaster upper-level columns colored in imitation of the Alaska marble found elsewhere in the rotunda, and a Dutch metal that looks like gold was applied to their capitals. One hundred forty-eight rosettes decorating the dome space were colored to give them definition, and the five-ton Tiffany chandelier dangling from the ceiling received a good shine. A second extensive renovation, begun in 2002 and expected to last two years, will replace the capitol’s heating and cooling system, remove asbestos, modernize electrical systems, and repair damage caused by the 6.8-magnitude Nisqually Earthquake of February 2001.

If Only They Knew

Harry White and Walter Wilder will never see the result of these restoration efforts. After severing their partnership during the Depression years, Wilder grew increasingly unhappy following a split with his wife, and was compelled by a neurotic condition to retire in 1932 at the age of 57. Eighteen months later he was found dead, a .22-caliber rifle beside his body. The local coroner labeled the case a suicide. White joined a New York firm for a time, and died a relatively obscure widower in a small town.

It may be a good thing that Roland Hartley is no longer around to see what’s become of the Olympia capitol he so ridiculed. With all that fuss he made over the $47.50 spittoons, image how he’d react to news that the latest renovations to the Legislative Building are expected to cost about $100 million.


Norman J. Johnston, Washington’s Audacious State Capitol and Its Builders (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988); Henry-Russell Hitchcock and William Seale, Temples of Democracy: The State Capitols of the U.S.A. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976); P. H. Carlyon, “From Shack to Palace,” The Washingtonian: a State Magazine of Progress, March 1928; J. Kingston Pierce, “Finishing the Dome,” The Weekly, December 3-9, 1986; J. Kingston Pierce, “When Washington Dared Build a Magnificent Capitol,” Columbia magazine, Summer 1987; “$100 Million Facelift,” The Olympian, June 9, 2002, p. 1. See also Spencer J. Howard, “Capitol Challenge: The Olmsted Brothers’ Landscape Architecture Master Plan for the Washington State Capitol Group in Olympia,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer 2011), 18-19, 22-23, 26-27; "Capitol Facts & History," Washington State Department of Enterprise Services website accessed February 4, 2015 (http://des.wa.gov/services/facilities/CapitolCampus/Pages/CapitolFacts.aspx).
Note: This essay was corrected on February 4, 2015.

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