History, Architecture and Politics Combine in a Salem-to-Olympia Tour
written by James Sinks
Politically speaking, Oregon and Washington have more in common than a shared border. They lean toward the liberal, rely on similar industries, and meld west-of-the-Cascade-Mountains urban priorities with eastside rural ones. The Northwest neighbors diverge notably, however, when it comes to the architecture of their capitol buildings.
The Washington State Legislative Building, on a bluff overlooking Olympia, was completed in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. It is an American cathedral that has the largest collection of Tiffany-made light fixtures anywhere.
More reserved yet still impressive, the Oregon State Capitol in Salem—dedicated in 1938 after a fire destroyed its predecessor—is one of just three Art Déco-styled statehouses in the country.
Amtrak Cascades whisks passengers the 160 miles between the capital cities, meaning you could tour both statehouses in a single day. Better yet, meander and make a government geek-out weekend of it.
Oregon’s Capitol sits just six blocks from the Salem station, between Willamette University and the flowering cherry tree-ringed Capitol Mall. Atop the dome stands a 23-foot-high, gold-covered “Oregon Pioneer,” which can be seen close-up on tours in good weather.
Inside, the vaulted rotunda greets visitors with paintings depicting the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Pink travertine covers the hallway walls, and pioneer names decorate the legislative chambers.
Open weekdays, the Capitol is filled with a constant din when the ninety-member assembly is in session. When lawmakers depart, it is a favorite venue for choirs, as the acoustics are top notch.
Don’t be surprised to see a little dust: An effort to make the building more seismically sound is underway.
Browse the gift shop, state library and eclectic fare in Salem’s downtown, where political chatter is frequently on the menu.
Trek north to Washington, where the Olympia-Lacey Amtrak station is a twenty-minute cab ride to the city center. Once downtown, the government campus is reached easily on foot or via a free bus loop.
Ornately decorated, the Roman-Neoclassical legislative building is topped by the fifth-highest stone masonry dome in the world. Inside dangles a five-ton Tiffany chandelier so massive you could fit a VW Bug inside it.
You’ll see the desks of 147 legislators, marble quarried across the globe, and a rare forty-two-star American flag, sewn in 1889 but never flown because Idaho joined the union before official flags were updated.
Daily tours begin just inside the north entry, across from the Supreme Court’s Temple of Justice on the 435-acre, monument- and park-filled government grounds.
At the gift shop, grab a Washington-grown Republican merlot or Democrat merlot, depending on your taste.
Afterward, zigzag downhill to Capitol Lake and to one of many waterfront watering holes at the southern tip of Puget Sound. In the shadow of Olympia’s famous dome, it turns out, good government and good spirits go together nicely.