Populists, Dreamers, and the Citizens Who Built Oregon's 1938 Capitol

By McKay, Floyd J. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Populists, Dreamers, and the Citizens Who Built Oregon's 1938 Capitol


McKay, Floyd J., Oregon Historical Quarterly


THE MORNING AFTER Oregon's Victorian-era Capitol building burned to the ground on April 25, 1935, Gov. Charles H. Martin received a telegram from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt. It read:

Hon. Charles H. Martin:

Have just learned that Oregon's historic capitol building has been destroyed by fire resulting in complete loss of building and its many valuable relics and records. I have requested the Public Works Administrator to investigate and see what assistance the federal government can render. Secretary [of the Interior Harold] Ickes therefore has telegraphed his Public Works representative in Oregon to cooperate with you in preparation of application papers and render every possible assistance.

Franklin D. Roosevelt. (1)

Thus began a frantic dash in the midst of the Great Depression to collect New Deal money that was contingent on securing a proper building site and additional funding from the Oregon Legislature. Fear of federal largess running out and leaving the state without a capitol or funds to replace it put pressure on everyone involved. There were plenty of ideas, but the timing and political climate worked against careful deliberation. The governor, who was at odds with his own political party, had to work with a legislature that was both divided and inexperienced. Populist anger from rural Oregon stood in opposition to those who had visionary dreams of a grand capitol that would inspire the state's citizens and impress a nation.

Despite those challenges, only three and a half years separated the first alarming curl of smoke from the old Capitol's basement and the dedication of the marble-clad replacement. New citizen leadership, including the man who would succeed Martin as governor in the 1938 election, emerged to carry the project to completion. It was an accomplishment remarkable for the times--the Depression had constrained the economy, and the state government and bureaucracy were small and inexperienced--and it helped cement the idea that Oregon could turn to unpaid citizens to tackle difficult issues, surmounting both partisan politics and financial constraints. Oregon was a leader in Progressive Era reforms, including the initiative and referendum, direct election of U.S. senators, protection of workers, and the use of citizen boards and commissions in critical areas such as transportation and higher education. Political scientist Jerry Mitchell connects extensive use of citizen boards with Progressive Era ideals:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Although boards and commissions had existed in some form before and after the nation's founding, it was the good-government movement of the turn of the century that established them on the American scene. The feeling was that groups of citizens appointed for fixed terms of office could represent the public interest better than either elected officials (who at the time were seen as too beholden to political machines) or solitary administrators (who could be hired or fired at the pleasure of machine politicians). (2)

None of Oregon's citizen boards was given greater latitude than the Capitol Reconstruction Commission (CRC), which planned and built both the new Capitol and the adjoining State Library before disbanding in 1939. Their Capitol celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of its dedication on October 1, 2013. It is a singular structure that stands out among America's state capitols and also is a monument to the Oregon style of unpaid citizen boards working on their own time for the good of the state.

Oregon and other states, described by political scientist Daniel Elazar as possessing "a moralistic political culture," have made extensive use of citizen boards to craft significant state policy. Elazar defines politics in such states as "public activity centered on some notion of the public good and properly devoted to the advancement of the public interest." In quoting Elazar, Oregon political scientist Robert E. …

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