40 for 40: Columbia County
Columbia County Courthouse

By Holly Chamberlainprevious story | next story | all stories

The historic preservation world often serves up a menu of “oldest this”, “unique that”, “smallest“ – “largest” – “tallest.” And we love the bill of fare.

Columbia County truly has the real meal deal, however, as its stately courthouse in Dayton is the oldest working courthouse in the state. Classic and classy – and dating to a territorial 1887, when statehood was still a distant gleam in the eyes of the 75 men who later met at the 1889 constitutional convention in Olympia.

Columbia was carved out of Walla Walla County in 1875, and at that time also encompassed land that in 1881 became Garfield County. County seat Dayton, platted in 1871, is set among southeastern Washington’s low rolling hills and has an economy based on agriculture and food processing. Wheat, peas, and asparagus are the primary crops. Dayton is a designated “Preserve America” community.

Designed by architect William Burrows, the courthouse was constructed by A.J. Dexter, a stone and brickwork contractor. The building remained largely unchanged until the 1930s, when a number of significant exterior features and finishes were removed, including the imposing cupola. In the 1950s, interior spaces were chopped up and ceilings lowered, and additional features removed.

Times and tastes change, however, and the community opted to work toward a restoration project in the 1970s, when interest was sparked in historic preservation throughout Dayton. The county placed the courthouse on the National Register in 1975, and the Columbia County Courthouse Renovation Committee was formed in 1982. Members such as Ginny Butler, Faye Rainwater and State Representative Terry Nealey shepherded the friend- and fund-raising for the project. Of the $2,000,000 needed, much was raised by the community. Construction on the initial phase of rehabilitation began in 1990, and was completed in 1993. Cardwell Architects managed the design and reconstruction for the overall project, which included restoration of original plaster detail and reconstruction of the central cupola.

The beautiful and significant work was recognized by the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation with a Valerie Siviniski award for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation Rehabilitation Projects.

With more than a decade gone by, new capital needs for the building arose. Enter the Historic County Courthouse Rehabilitation Program. Established as a program within the Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation in 2005, the program identified 34 historic county courthouses across the state in need of significant rehabilitation work. This list included the courthouse in Dayton, and Columbia County has since received three separate grants totaling more than $96,000. State grant dollars in turn leveraged a nearly equal amount in additional dollars, enabling over $185,000 in overall improvements to the courthouse. The Washington Trust has been a major proponent of the courthouse rehabilitation program since its inception, and remains honored to assist DAHP in program administration.

Today, the Columbia County Courthouse boasts broad entry steps leading into the foyer, from which graceful paired staircases access the light-filled courtroom with its 19-foot ceiling. After a visit to the courthouse, be sure to linger in historic Dayton, which generously shares its well-preserved architectural legacy with visitors.

Historic Courthouse Rehabilitation Program: Overall, 56 grants have been made statewide to 26 counties since the program began in the 2005-07 biennium. The deadline for applying for funds in the 2017-2019 biennium is July 11. For more information, go to: http://www.dahp.wa.gov/courthouse-preservation.

Soffit detail of the Columbia County Courthouse.

Column capital detail of the Columbia County Courthouse's front entry.

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights the Historic County Courthouse Rehabilitation Grant Program and demonstrates the value our state has placed on preserving this tremendous legacy of civic buildings. If you would like to support our work and spur more positive outcomes for Washington's historic resources, please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust to support the advocacy work we do. Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

Here's to 40 more years of saving places that matter across Washington! Please sign up for our special weekly e-newsletter to recieve stories like this in your inbox all year long.

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