Looming large over Sylvester Park in downtown Olympia, one of Washington State’s most iconic and historic buildings has caught the eye of the passersby for over a century. Built in 1892, the old Capitol building was once even more castle-like, standing tall as a beacon of hope, democracy and Washington State pride.
The unique architecture of the building reflects a storied history and has served as a cornerstone location for important events in our state for decades. Now home to the , the old Capitol building is a fascinating location for reconnecting with the history and beauty of Washington State. While most only see the building through the trees as they drive up and down Capitol Boulevard, the building is open for tours and is a great stop for all who wish to know our capital city and state a little better.
Originally built as the Thurston County Courthouse, the old Capitol building was once even more grandiose than the current structure. When it was first built, the edifice had a 150-foot-high octagonal tower in the center, sporting a clock on each of the its eight sides. Constructed from Chuckanut stone from Whatcom County, the building was a testament to Pacific Northwest architecture and a perfect reflection of the style of the late 1800s.
What would be considered gaudy in today’s standards, the building’s facade was the pride of the state. For 13 years the structure served as the Thurston Country Courthouse before being purchased by the state in 1901 and turned into the Capitol building. Remodeled, the new building was adorned with 12 towers surrounding it, helping make the structure look even more regal and unique.
Two years later in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, standing in front of the stained-glass window facing Sylvester Park, to 10,000 people gathered around the building. For the next 25 years it was used by most state agencies and the Washington State Legislature until they moved to the current legislative building in 1928. That same year, a devastating fire roared through the old Capitol building, burning the clock tower and the entire fourth floor. Renovations took nearly a decade to finish but the building returned better than ever.
The new features of the building, however, would be short lived as a large earthquake that struck the region in 1949 destroyed 10 of the 12 towers and forever changed the appearance of the building. The building was repaired but scaled down in grandeur. For the next 35 years it faced a few construction projects, eventually ending with the current structure we see today. Now, the building is home to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, where decisions regarding Washington’s public schools are made.
While the outside of the old Capitol building is incredible to look at, the inside of the building is also full of artistic beauty. The building is still a working office but the main hallways of the structure display incredible works of art from around the country. From famous paintings and to pictures drawn by local students and people from sister cities around the world, the hallways represent a celebration of our state, our nation and our planet.
For many, the highlight of the art work is found in the west wing of the third floor, where a charcoal drawing of George Washington hangs. Surrounded by a frame made of numerous types of local wood, the picture was a gift to the state in 1893 and illustrates a stunning scene. Also in that area one can find the document from 1861 that created the territorial school system, which later became Washington’s public schools. Also on the third floor, one of only three remaining legislators’ desks can be found. The one on display was used from 1905 until 1928.
Throughout the building incredible pictures and works of art by local students can be discovered hanging on the walls, changing each year. In some areas, pictures from China, Korea and Japan line the walkways highlighting our close relationship with the nations of the Pacific Rim. Elsewhere, pictures of the old building and important people in Washington State can be found, making this both a historical and cultural walk through one of the older buildings in Washington State. The best display of historical pictures and artifacts can be found on the first floor in the east and west wings.
The old Capitol building is one of the most iconic structures in the Pacific Northwest. While most of us have walked or driven past it, consider taking an hour or two and wandering through the castle-like building. The architecture is inspiring and the history found inside will strengthen your love for the Evergreen State. For information on the old Capitol building in Olympia or to arrange for a tour, contact the manager by calling 360-902-8880.
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