Many people drive past Olympia’s old Thurston County Courthouse at 1100 Capitol Way SE everyday. Located on the Washington State Capitol East Campus, the former headquarters of Thurston County government was built in 1930. In the 1970s and 1980s, a public movement saved the building from plans to demolish it. Now preserved, the state-owned structure currently houses several government offices.
Thurston County has had a series of courthouses over time. Built just before the Great Depression impacted Thurston County, the 1930 courthouse replaced a structure at 202 4th Avenue East. The county picked Joseph Wohleb, one of Olympia’s leading architects, for the project. Born in Connecticut in 1887, Wohleb worked as an architect in California before relocating to Olympia in 1911. He spent the rest of his career designing buildings in the South Puget Sound Region. Surviving buildings in the county include the Carnegie Library, Lincoln Elementary School, Lord Mansion and McCleary Mansion. Wohleb passed away in 1958.
For the 1930 Thurston County Courthouse, Joseph Wohleb designed an art deco style building located on the main street into downtown Olympia. An H-shaped four story structure with a raised basement, the central block is surmounted with a rectangular tower. With two-story projecting wings, the building measures approximately 184 feet by 84 feet. Sixty-nine tons of steel reinforce the concrete structure. Set-back massing emphasizes the geometrical form of the building and hard edge angular pilasters, topped with stern-looking masonry eagles grace the front of the building. The courthouse’s exterior is faced with Tenino sandstone, with low-relief carvings around the top of the building and main doors.
The interior of the building features fewer art deco architectural elements. Visitors and workers are greeted in the foyer with plaster eagle sculptures and octagonal lighting fixtures. Hallways and the main stairs have marble floors and wainscoting. The stairs retain their original molded wooden handrail and wrought-iron balustrade. Originally the first floor housed county offices while the courtrooms and offices were located on the second floor. The set-back third and fourth floors held the county jail and support facilities (note the smaller windows).
The courthouse had a formal morning dedication and an evening open house on Friday, September 12, 1930. Hundreds attended the events. A feature of the ceremony was the official presentation of the building to the county. First, general contractor Walter Boyer transferred the structure to architect Joseph Wohleb, who then gave the building over to Chairman of the County Commissioners J. B. Taylor. Taylor in turn presented the courthouse to the people of Thurston County. To honor the role of local labor in the project, Tom Stinson of the Olympia Building Trades Council presented flags for the building. The new courthouse opened for business on Monday, September 15.
The courthouse was the seat of Thurston County government for nearly 50 years. Generations of Thurston County residents filed for marriage licenses, registered to vote or used the court system there. The courthouse was also the site of several protests over Native American fishing rights during the “Fish Wars” in the 1960s.
In 1978, the Thurston County Courthouse officially relocated to its current location at 2000 Lakeridge Drive on the Westside of Olympia. However, debate raged over what to do with the 1930 courthouse. In 1976, the State Capital Committee voted for demolition of the old structure. Governor Dixy Lee Ray and Land Commissioner Bert Cole agreed to the building’s destruction while only Lieutenant Governor John Cherberg voted against removal. The committee majority deemed the building as both too expensive to renovate and not historically worthy enough to merit preservation.
This verdict did not sit well with many people in Thurston County who wanted their beloved courthouse preserved. Local civic leaders and community members formed a Save Our Courthouse Committee and more than 4,000 people signed petitions urging the state to preserve the courthouse. In 1980, the state was still discussing plans to knock the building down to form a lawn or parking lot for new east campus buildings. Finally it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. The building is also on the state and local historic registers.
The old Thurston County Courthouse survived. After sitting vacant for a decade, the building was renovated in the 1990s and now houses small agencies, offices and commissions. They include the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise, Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, and Caseload Forecast Council. Properly honored now, this imposing edifice reminds people of the importance all levels of government have had in shaping the economy and society of Olympia and beyond.
The author wishes to thank Marygrace Goddu (Cultural Resources Manager, Washington State Department of Enterprise Services) for her assistance with research for this article.