Olympia’s Hidden Gem: The East Capitol Campus

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L.Located across Capitol Way from the Legislative Building, it may come as no surprise that many visitors fail to realize that the East Capitol campus is part of the Washington State Capitol campus. Construction of this group of office buildings began in the 1960s. This important portion of the campus was created to accommodate growing state government agencies and provide employee parking.

Construction of the historic heart of the campus, now known as the West Capitol Campus, began in 1912 with the Temple of Justice. Construction was not completed until after World War I, but the Insurance Building (1921) and the Legislative Building (1927) quickly followed.

With the help of federal New Deal aid programs, the state was able to advance the original campus plan with the construction of the twin “arrowhead” buildings south of the Legislative Building (now known as Cherberg ([1937] and O’Brien [1940] Building). Although they currently house legislative offices, the buildings originally housed a number of state agencies.

But the campus ran out of office space while these new buildings were being completed. Overcrowding became a bigger problem with the exponential growth of state government after World War II. A successful lawsuit brought against the state by senior Olympic executives also contributed to the crush. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that state agencies must be based in Olympia.

Washington State Capitol Campus East
Through the flags at the Korean War Memorial, visitors can see (from left to right) the Highway Licenses Building, DNR Building, and Office Building 2. Photo credit: Jennifer Crooks

Therefore, the state is looking for ways to expand the Capitol campus. The Capitol Committee, the group that oversees the campus, hired Puget Planners in 1956-57. They suggested buying about 25 acres south of campus to 18th Street between Capitol Way and the cliff over Capitol Lake. High land prices and resistance from residents of the South Capitol Neighborhood halted this plan. Still, the state was able to build the former Washington State Library (now the Joel M. Pritchard Building) south of the arrowhead buildings in 1959.

Another option was to expand the campus to the north. Although the state built the (now closed) General Administration Building (or GA Building) and a parking garage in 1956, moving to the Olympia business district proved impractical.

Looking for another option, the State hired Paul Thiry, the architect of the Washington State Library, to design a campus extension. His 1958 plan suggested expanding the campus to the east side of Capitol Way. This would allow for architectural design flexibility and be closer to the new motorway. The 48.5 acre area was bordered by 11th Avenue, Jefferson Street, and Maple Park Avenue. It included a number of historic houses and the Olympia High School. The Capitol Committee approved Thiry’s idea and despite protests from affected residents, the legislature voted to buy the property. This area would become the current East Capitol campus.

However, the earliest construction did not follow Thiry’s design for a number of office buildings. The architecture firm Harmon, Pray and Dietrich from Seattle completed both the Employment Security Building and the Highway Licenses Building in 1962. These twin buildings were designed in the New Formalism Style (then Classical Contemporary). This style is characterized by cast concrete slabs, symmetrical arrangement and reduced classic design motifs.

Washington State Capitol Campus Shaman Statue
In 1971 an unidentified woman, probably an employee of the Department of Transportation, posed next to the “Shaman” statue. The statue is next to the transport building. Courtesy photo: Washington State Digital Archives, Department of Transportation Collection

The last building constructed in the early stages of the East Campus was the Washington State Archives. The archive, which is officially housed in the basement of the Cherberg building, maintains state records and operates a system of regional branches for county and local government records. Most of the archive building is underground and (since the Cold War) the building has also been designed as a nuclear shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

To streamline future construction, the Capitol Committee hired Walker, McGough, and Foltz, a Spokane-based architecture and planning firm, to redesign the East Campus. They created a group of office buildings revolving around an underground parking lot. This new group of buildings reflects a change in architectural style: brutalism. Brutalist buildings are made of heavy reinforced concrete in chunky angular shapes.

The first of this second construction wave was the H-shaped Highways Administration Building. The office building, designed by The Richardson Associates in Seattle and completed in 1970, was awarded a “Special Prize for Outstanding Concrete Quality” by the Washington Aggregates & Concrete Association.

Washington State Capitol Campus Water Garden
Lawrence Halprin’s walk-in sculptural fountain “Water Garden” was installed in 1972. Due to water loss problems, the state closed the well permanently in 1992. Courtesy photo: Washington State Digital Archives, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990

In 1975, Richardson Associates followed with Office Building Two (OB2). This H-shaped building gathered employees from a number of government agencies from over 22 different locations. It now houses the Ministry of Social and Health Services, but has retained its original name.

With the second group of office buildings, public art became an important part of campus design. Contemporary art by well-known artists from the Pacific Northwest is spread across the entire campus of the Eastern Capitol. These include: “Boiler Works”, “Mysteries of Life”, “Sea to Sky”, “The Shaman”, “Untitled Stainless Steel”, “Water Garden” and “Woman Dancing”.

Since the 1980s, construction of new state government buildings has been directed to nearby communities such as Lacey and Tumwater. However, the East Campus has evolved. In 1992 the building of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was built. New technologies and designs have been incorporated into this new building to create a more energy efficient and healthier work environment.

While the East Capitol Campus, with its art, Korean War Memorial, and a cross-section of nearly 50 years of changing architectural styles, feels like a more functional area isolated from the historic West Capitol campus, it’s for both visitors and locals alike.

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