If visiting the Oregon State Capitol (900 NE Court St., 503/986-1388, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free) strikes you as the kind of saccharine excursion best reserved for a first-grade class trip, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The marble halls of Oregon government are adorned with attractive murals, paintings, and sculptures of the seminal events in the state’s history.
The capitol is located on Court Street between West Summer and East Summer Streets, just north of Willamette University .
Atop the capitol dome is a gold-leafed bronze statue of a bearded ax-wielding pioneer. Massive marble sculptures flank the main entrance—Covered Wagons on the west side and Lewis and Clark Led by Sacagawea on the east. Maps of the Oregon Trail and the route of Lewis and Clark are visible on the backs of the statues.
The symbolism is sustained after you enter the double glass doors to the rotunda. Your eyes will immediately be drawn to a bronze state seal, eight feet in diameter and set into the floor, that juxtaposes an eagle in flight, a sailing ship, a covered wagon, and forests. The 33 marble steps beyond the cordoned-off emblem lead up to the House and Senate chambers and symbolize Oregon ’s place as the 33rd state to enter the Union. Four large murals adorning the rose travertine walls of the rotunda illustrate the settlement and growth of Oregon: Robert Gray sailing into the Columbia estuary in 1792; Lewis and Clark at Celilo Falls in 1805; the first white women to cross the continent being welcomed by Dr. John McLoughlin in 1836; and the first wagon train on the Oregon Trail in 1843.
Bronze reliefs and smaller murals symbolic of Oregon’s industries also are displayed. The best part of the capitol is the legislative chambers, up the sweeping marble staircases.
Near the ceiling in the Senate and House chambers are friezes depicting an honor roll of people who influenced the growth and settlement of Oregon. Included are Thomas Jefferson, who sanctioned the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Thomas Condon, native son and naturalist extraordinaire. Also among the names are those of six women, headed by Lewis and Clark’s interpreter-guide Sacagawea.
The biggest surprise in the array might be John Quincy Adams, who determined the southern boundary of Oregon when he was secretary of state. In both legislative chambers look for forestry, agricultural, and fishing symbols woven into the carpets; murals about the coming of statehood are behind the speakers’ rostrums.
Among the many architecturally eye-catching features to be found in the capitol are the rotunda’s black marble, the House chamber walls and furnishings of golden oak, black walnut room appointments in the Senate, a walnut-paneled governor’s office, and bronze doorknobs inlaid with the state seal throughout the building. There is also a carved myrtlewood table inlaid with a mosaic of the capitol in the reception area outside the governor’s suite between the House and the Senate. All this was paid for with part of the $2 million it took to build the capitol in 1938.
If you don’t want to roam independently, free half-hour building tours are given on the hour 9 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays, with a lunch break noon–1 p.m.
A tower at the top of the capitol building gives a superlative view of the Willamette Valley  and surrounding Cascade peaks, worth the 121-step climb from the fourth floor. It’s open Memorial Day–September (but closes when the temperature reaches 90°F) and other times of the year by appointment; call 541/986-1388 for tour information. Also worth a look is the ongoing exhibit of outstanding Oregon artists in the governor’s ceremonial office upstairs. Downstairs is a fine gift shop and a café. On the west side of the building (Court St. entrance) is an indoor visitors information kiosk.
At each end of the capitol are parks featuring giant sequoias, magnolias, and Camperdown elms. Between the capitol and the state executive building on the corner of Court and Cottage Streets is Willson Park. Lush lawns, a gazebo for concerts, and a wide variety of trees, including sequoias, Port Orford cedars, Asian cedars, blue spruces, mountain ashes, dogwoods, and incense cedars, invite a picnic.
Two large multicolored rose gardens bloom through much of the year to garnish your spread, and a trio of bronze beavers make the perfect lunch companions. Also to the west of the building are the beautiful E. M. Waite Memorial Fountain and a replica of the Liberty Bell. To the east is Capitol Park, where you can admire Corinthian columns salvaged from the old capitol (destroyed by fire in 1935) and statues of Dr. John McLoughlin, Reverend Jason Lee, and the circuit rider, honoring horseback evangelists to the pioneers during the era of missionary zeal.
The oldest government building in Salem  is the Supreme Court building (1147 State St.), dating back to 1914. It’s located to the east of the capitol on the southern half of the block across Waverly Street, facing State Street and bounded by 12th Street. The building’s facade is white terra-cotta, and the marble interior has tile flooring. Visual highlights include an ornate stairwell and a stained-glass skylight in the third-floor courtroom framing a replica of the Oregon state seal. Above all, don’t miss the public restrooms. Tastefully appointed in marble, oak, and tile, these facilities were described in Oregon magazine as “doing justice to public needs.”
To get to the Oregon State Capitol from I-5, take Exit 253 to Route 22 West. Take the Willamette University/State Offices Exit and follow the signs for 12th Street/State Offices. Turn left onto Court Street.