Oregon Supreme Court Reopening Celebrates Preservation & Resilience of Capitol Mall’s Oldest Building

By Josette Katcha, Associate

historic courtroom interior
The third-floor courtroom during and after construction. In addition to installing energy-efficient lighting and building systems and cleaning the stained-glass laylight to allow for improved daylighting, the project team restored the original cork floors, designed a custom rug mirroring the stained-glass details, and restored finish paint to match the original colors.

The Oregon State Supreme Court reopened to judicial staff this spring following a comprehensive interior modernization and seismic retrofit led by Hennebery Eddy. Associate Josette Katcha spoke at the state’s ceremony marking the occasion; her remarks are adapted here.

seated audience listens to a speak at a podium in a courtroom
Josette Katcha speaks at the grand reopening of the Oregon Supreme Court building.

If you walked into the building today and thought to yourself, “This doesn’t really look that different,” then thank you! That means we did our job well. A lot happened behind these walls and beneath our feet for this historic building to remain looking just that — historic — while giving the building another 100+ years of life.

The Oregon Supreme Court was constructed in 1914 to supplement the 1876 state capitol building with a dedicated space for the court and state law library. It was designed in the style of Beaux Arts by regional architect W.C. Knighton and is one of his finest works. When the original capitol was tragically destroyed by fire in 1935, the Supreme Court acquired the title of “oldest building” on Salem’s Capitol Mall.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, and another threat looms over our capital and the region: the overdue Cascadia subduction earthquake. The impacts of an earthquake on an unreinforced masonry building such as the Supreme Court would be devastating. Beyond that, the building was in need of overall rehabilitation, with outdated and dysfunctional working spaces and systems. The Oregon Department of Administrative Services and Oregon Judicial Department sounded the alarm back in 2008, which is when Hennebery Eddy first became involved in charting the future for this landmark.

black-and-white image of early 20th-century women working in the stacks of a library
Historic image of library staff working in the state library.

When I joined the design team in 2018, my role was two-fold: interior designer and preservation specialist. From the beginning, we shared the state’s enthusiasm for the building’s rich history, the importance of preserving it, and doing so sustainably. One of our first steps was getting the building the recognition it deserved, successfully nominating it to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020.

Structural investigations and material testing revealed the building was more fragile than initially thought, with a system of unreinforced brick exterior walls, unsupported hollow clay tile interior partitions, and an arched hollow clay tile floor that at first glance defied the law of physics. A base-isolation system was ultimately chosen for the seismic retrofit and designed by experts Forell/Elsesser Engineers; it promised greater occupant safety and building resilience at a similar cost to other options while having the least impact on the historic fabric.

Beyond the critical seismic update, the project team of Hoffman Construction, Interface Engineering, and other partners did a lot of “hidden” work to thoughtfully deconstruct the building, improve its systems, and put it back together, with expert attention to historic detail. Even the paint selection involved microscopic color analyses in our preservation lab — and I probably made the painters do 50 mockups to get it just right.

side-by-side images showing an ornate interior space
The second-floor law library during and after construction.

This project’s impact extends beyond its classically detailed walls, the Capitol Mall, and even the Pacific Northwest. The Supreme Court is now on track to be LEED Gold certified — becoming the first LEED-certified building in Oregon that is also both historic and base-isolated, and one of only two in the entire nation. Now, the 100-year-old building is healthy, efficient, adaptive, and safe.

To complete the high level of preservation, the team recruited some of the best tradespeople in the region — no easy task as the pool of historically qualified trade partners dwindles. The plaster restoration scope served as a historic training opportunity for Plasterers Local 82; through their apprenticeship program on this project, their membership grew from 63 to 120.

Our project team’s forward-thinking approach to preservation and resilience has set a precedent for future rehabilitation projects. It’s the epitome of our Historic Resources Group’s goals: to practice sustainable preservation while ensuring longevity for future generations.