The Columbia County Courthouse in Dayton is Washington’s oldest. Completed in 1886 and put into use in 1887, the building is only a few years younger than the county, which was carved from Walla Walla County in 1885, and a few years older than the state, which was admitted to the Union in 1889. The Courthouse represents an earlier period of political activity when county government played a critical role for early settlers. In a period of rapid growth and limited opportunity for contact with the state capitol, it was to county government that persons turned as a source of authority and administration for the area. The needs most immediate to county citizens were located in the courthouse: land and tax records, the assessor, judges, and commissioners.
The courthouse, set at the center of a green and shady square, serves as a centerpiece for Dayton. The town was platted in 1871 and quickly grew into a prosperous agricultural center, with numerous homes, businesses, and a downtown commercial core by the late 1880s. A remarkable number of these Victorian-era structures remain today, and the small city of 2,500 persons boasts three National Register historic districts, as well as a dozen individually recognized historic buildings. Dayton’s attractive railroad depot, built in 1881 for the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, is the oldest extant depot in Washington.
Designed by architect William Burrows in a hybrid of the Italianate and Second Empire Styles, the stately Columbia County Courthouse is two stories tall over a nearly full-story basement. Load-bearing masonry walls, using locally-made brick, are finished on the exterior with smooth cement stucco, allowing such architectural flourishes as heavy window surrounds and quoins at the building corners. On the north and south facades, projecting entry porches and stairs lead to the main floor. The crowning glory is its central cupola, which features a Mansard roof and cast-iron ornamental metal work.
The building retains its symmetrical plan and shape, because unlike many historic courthouses, it has never received an addition. However, its appearance today is the result of a major restoration initiated in 1984 to correct “modernization” alterations that were undertaken by the county commissioners in the 1930s and again in the 1950s. During this period, ornamental metal and statuary were melted down for the wartime scrap drive, the cupola and Victorian details were removed, and some of the interior was altered. By 1974, when the courthouse was accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, even the applicants acknowledged that “the exterior has been greatly changed from its original … appearance.” Thankfully, when the final phase of restoration was completed in 1993, the cupola, architectural details, and prominence of the courthouse had been returned to its appearance when it was completed over a century before.
Dougherty, Phil. “Columbia County Courthouse (1887), Dayton.” HistoryLink Essay 7845, July 26, 2006. www.HistoryLink.org.
“Columbia County Courthouse (Dayton WA),” National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form, July 23, 1974.
Graves, Ray. Washington’s Historical Courthouses. Bellevue, Wash: Elvin Cove Press, 2002.