The Oregon Capitol now has some company on the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Park Service added the State Library, built in 1938, to its list of historically significant buildings, the library announced last week. The modernist building’s inclusion in the national register means it could be eligible for tax breaks or grants, and it doesn’t have to comply with all building codes that apply to new or renovated buildings.
The library, on Winter Street just northwest of the Capitol, exists in part because of a series of tragedies. The territorial government called for creating a library in 1848, but a fire in 1855 destroyed the first library collection, which was housed in the Capitol. In 1889, a storm blew the roof off the new Capitol — again destroying the library collection.
By 1913, the new state library relocated to the Oregon Supreme Court, though some library materials were still damaged when Oregon’s second state capitol burned down in 1935. At the same time, the federal government’s New Deal program was seeking to get Americans back to work in the midst of the Great Depression.
With $450,000 from the federal Public Works Administration, construction on the library began in February 1928. Architects designed the library, which has three stories, a penthouse and a basement, to complement the nearby Capitol, using the same white marble exterior, bronze window frames and flooring in both buildings.
Another New Deal program, the Works Progress Administration, resulted in library furnishings and decorations, including a pair of henna curtains, three mounted bird pictures and a map of Oregon flowers by artist Charlotte Mish. The WPA employed thousands of artists, musicians and writers, along with millions of people who built roads, bridges, housing and national parks across the country.
One of those artists was Gabriel Lavare, a Californian who lived in Oregon for most of the Depression. His art deco carving of a pioneer woman reading to her son is just inside the library’s entrance.
Oregon women played a key role in creating and running the state library, and local public libraries in other communities. From 1905 to 1983, every state librarian was a woman.
Today, the state library is still the only library that serves all Oregonians. Legislators, state employees and historians use it as a historical reference. The state library also provides audiobooks and Braille books for any Oregonians with disabilities that prevent them from reading standard books.