Fire damages Old State Capitol Building in Olympia on September 8, 1928.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 5/24/2007
  • Essay 8153
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On Saturday afternoon, September 8, 1928, fire destroys the third floor of the Old State Capitol Building in Olympia, Washington, along with its most notable decoration, a 150-foot-tall octagonal clock tower displaying an illuminated dial in each of the eight facets, visible day or night from throughout the city.  With assistance from Tacoma firefighters, the Olympia Fire Department douses the flames and saves the building, but the clockwork is destroyed and the clocks are stopped forever. The structure is soon repaired, but the clock tower is declared unsafe and removed, never to be replaced. 

An Historic Building and Its Clock

The Old State Capitol Building, which occupies the entire 600 block of S Washington Street in downtown Olympia, was designed by Northwest architect Willis A. Ritchie (1865-1931) in the Richardson Romanesque style.  It was built in 1891 as the Thurston County Courthouse and is constructed of light gray sandstone quarried in Wilkeson, a small town in Pierce County near Buckley, Washington.  In an attempt at fireproofing, no wooden framing was used below the roof.  The floor joists were steel and the floors in public areas were glazed tile laid in an ornamental pattern. Around its high hip roof was an arrangement of eight conical turrets and eight dormers.  In the middle of the building stood a stone, octagonal clock tower rising 150 feet above street level, displaying an illuminated dial in each of the eight facets.  It was the city’s most famous landmark and its citizens depended upon the clocks for the time.

In 1901, the Washington State Legislature appropriated $350,000 to purchase the courthouse from Thurston County and then added a new wing, at an additional cost of $500,000, more than doubling the size of the building.  Completed in 1905, the new Capitol Building housed the state legislature, the state supreme court, and the state library, as well as most of the state government’s executive branch.  It was supposed to be large enough to serve the needs of the government for 50 years, but in 1911, Washington state’s rapid growth prompted the legislature to authorize plans to build a much larger and more lavish Capitol Building, which was finally completed in 1928 at a cost of $7 million.  By April 1928, much of the Old State Capitol Building had been vacated, but some departments and elected officials still maintained offices there.  

Dense Smoke and Fire

At 3:35 p.m. on Saturday, September 8, 1928, William L. Todd, a 65-year-old janitor, saw dense smoke at the base of the tower and in the eaves of the roof and immediately turned in an alarm, bringing all available firefighters and equipment in Olympia to the scene.  The fire started on the third floor in the west wing, the oldest section of building, and climbed into the attic, where it was difficult to reach, and then advanced to the tower.  Water directed onto the roof merely splashed off the ornamental metal roofing, making it impossible to combat the blaze from outside.  Firefighters ran hose lines inside the building and fought their way down corridors and up stairways.  Several firefighters were overcome by smoke and had to evacuate the building.  Ankle-deep water, falling plaster and burning debris added to the difficulty.  But the only effective firefighting was being accomplished from inside the building

After 20 minutes, it was apparent to Olympia Fire Department officials that a shortage of men and equipment was hindering their efforts to save the historic building, and they called Tacoma Fire Department for assistance.  Engine Company No. 8 responded with a full compliment of firefighters and equipment, making the 32-mile run down Pacific Highway (US 99, later SR 99) in heavy Saturday afternoon traffic in 35 minutes.  Upon arrival, the Tacoma firemen carried their hoses onto the roof by ladder, punched holes through the roof into the attic and began attacking the flames from above.  

Time Stops in Olympia

The clock tower looked like a big chimney, billowing smoke and flames, but the clockwork mechanism continued running.  At times, it appeared as though the high tower might collapse, but it stayed upright, and the clocks stopped one at a time.  The last clock stopped at 4:47 p.m., when a fire hose hit the dial with a blast of water.  By 5:00 p.m., through the combined efforts of both fire departments and citizen volunteers, the blaze was brought under control and by 5:30 p.m. completely extinguished.

Aside from the historic building, the greatest concern had been for the safety of its valuable contents.  Many Olympia’s citizens, including businessmen and Boy Scouts, voluntarily entered the burning building and carried out historical artifacts and crates of irreplaceable files and records. A large portrait of George Washington in an oak frame that stood on the landing between the second and third floors for 23 years, was carried to safety in Sylvester Park. 

Another group removed a large collection of stuffed and mounted animals on display in the lobby.  All the records and files were saved, but some were water soaked.  Records that were undamaged, which included those of the Department of Land, Department of Agriculture, Department of Conservation and Development, Department of Public Utilities, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, were taken to temporary safe depositories.  Six watchmen were assigned to guard the windows and doors of the vulnerable structure.  

After the Fire

Early Sunday morning, crews of workmen began clearing away debris and moving office furnishings and records to new quarters in the undamaged east wing.  Water-damaged records, mostly from the Department of Public Works, were removed to the empty committee rooms in back of the old house and senate chambers.  Officials estimated that 95 percent of these records were salvageable.  Displaced departments resumed governmental business in their “new quarters” on Monday, September 10, 1928.

Washington State Insurance Commissioner H. O. Fishback, acting as ex-officio state fire marshal, had the fire thoroughly investigated.  Some investigators blamed old and defective wiring in the old section of the structure, while others attributed the blaze to a faulty heating system. There were also rumors the fire had been set by an arsonist with incendiary devises. But its origin remained a mystery. Damage to the structure and its contents was estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.  Since the government is self-insured, the cost of repairs would be borne by Washington’s taxpayers.  

The southwest corner of the third floor sustained the worst damage. The roof had been destroyed there, exposing the Department of Public Works offices to the elements.  The chief damage to the interior of the building was done by water which seeped into the offices below and cascaded down the stairways and elevator shafts into the basement.  Engineers found the internal structure of the building to be sound and the masonry undamaged, but the foundation of the clock tower was unstable and the tower had to be removed.  Repair work on the historic building was scheduled to begin at once.

Old Friend Gone

Olaf L. Olsen, director of the Department of Business Control, contracted with the Tacoma architectural firm of Heath, Gove & Bell to supervise the reconstruction.  Cost of the work was estimated at $100,000, but included modernizing the plumbing and wiring to conform with current building codes, and renovating the structure, but not replacing the clock tower.  Actual construction started within 10 days and took approximately three months to complete. Meanwhile, the policy of the government offices that had been hastily moved to the east wing, was “business as usual.”

Olympia citizens began circulating petitions demanding that the clock tower be rebuilt and the eight illuminated dials restored.  Local newspapers received numerous letters-to-the-editor inquiring if any progress was being made.  One writer asked: “What is $1,500 to $2,000, necessary to restore the clock to the state?  Olympians have an interest in the Old Capitol and want it to look as well as possible.  Besides, the clock is like an old friend” (The Daily Olympian).  

On Saturday, October 13, 1928, Director Olsen announced to the press that a “different type of low tower with a single-faced clock” would be built.  He said: “According to Gove [the architect], the tower will harmonize better with the style of the rest of the building than did the old” (The Daily Olympian). Instead, a large dormer  with a hole eight feet in diameter was built between the two conical towers at the main entrance, replacing a recessed balcony, but a clock was never installed.

The 1949 Earthquake and After

In 1949, an earthquake toppled all the conical turrets on the Old State Capitol Building, with the exception of those at the main entrance, and caused severe structural damage requiring closure of most of the third floor.  Some of the stonework above the main entrance was also damaged, as was the stone entrance and steps to the east wing.  When repairs were made, the entire structure was retrofit on the inside with 190 tons of steel reinforcements.  The masonry above the entrances was replaced, but not the conical turrets, altering the appearance of the old courthouse.  The east wing entrance steps were repaired with cement.  

On May 30, 1975, the Old State Capitol Building was officially designated as an historic place by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and listed on the Washington Heritage Register (listing No. TN00095). On this same date, the building was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places (listing No. 75001877) maintained by the National Park Service.

Over the years, the Old State Capitol Building has undergone many undocumented minor and major modifications.  Most of the changes have been plumbing, electrical and mechanical improvements, but the office spaces have also been reconfigured countless times. 

The 90-year-old building was completely renovated between 1981 and 1983 at a cost of $9 million, which included the addition of two conical towers on the east side of the building, seismic reinforcement, and cleaning of the exterior stonework.  Northwest stained-glass artist Michael Kennedy fabricated an eight-foot diameter art glass window, with the Seal of the State of Washington in the center, which is prominently displayed over the main entrance.  The Old State Capitol Building was rededicated on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1983, and currently houses the offices of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  

Sources: “Famous State House Gutted by Flames; Volunteers and Tacoma Firemen Aid Battle,” Daily Olympian, September 9, 1928, p. 1; “Officials are Silent on Work of Rebuilding,”  “Capitol Fire Shows Lack of Room,” Ibid., September 10, 1928, p. 1; “Old Capitol to Be Renovated Contracts Let,” Ibid., September 20, 1928, p. 1; “Clock Removal Is Protested Again,” Ibid., September 29, 1928, p. 1; “Clock Is Needed Meyer Declares,” Ibid., September 30, 1928, p. 1; “New Clock Tower to Replace Old,” Ibid., October 14, 1928, p. 1; The Seattle Star, September, 10, 1928, p. 1; “Fire Wrecks Old Capitol,” The Seattle Times, September 9, 1928, p. 1; “State Business Goes on Despite Fire in Capitol,” Ibid., September 10, 1928, p. 8; “Famed State Building Is Blaze Victim,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 9, 1928, p. 1; “The Old Capitol Building Continues to Serve,” Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website accessed January 2007 (; “National Register of Historical Places: Washington; Thurston County,” National Register of Historical Places website accessed January 2007 (; “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed January 2007 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Olympia Capitol -- A History of the Building” (by J. Kingston Pierce), (accessed January 10, 2007).

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