Town founder Edmund Sylvester filed the original plat for Olympia in 1850, setting aside this block as a public square. For much of the late 1800s the square remained largely undeveloped, used by neighbors as a grazing pasture for livestock.
When conflict between settlers and natives turned violent in 1855, Olympia residents erected a palisade wall along Fourth Avenue and a blockhouse on the northwest corner of the square for protection. Following the conflict, the blockhouse served as Olympia’s first town jail. It was demolished after several inmates escaped by chipping through the deteriorating wood. The logs were sawn into blocks and used to pave city streets.
In the late 1800s, faster-growing Washington cities vied to become the Capital of Washington and pointed to the shabby town square as a symbol of Olympia’s slow growth. The city promptly erected an ornate iron fence to keep the cows out and began to beautify the space. In 1891 Thurston County erected an elaborate courthouse on the block east of the square. However, it proved too ostentatious for county purposes. The state purchased it for use as the Capitol in 1901 and the square was renamed “Capitol Park.” Citizens planted trees, built an ornamental pond and a two-story covered bandstand for public events. The “old capitol” served as Washington’s capitol building until the present Legislative Building was completed in 1928.
After World War II, Washington State Government grew rapidly. To meet the demand for automobile parking, state officials planned to replace the park with an underground parking garage topped with a concrete plaza. Activists, led by local teacher and naturalist Margaret McKenny, fought to protect the green space. The state scrapped the plan when McKenny’s research showed the original deed for the land required its continued use as a park; otherwise, ownership reverted to Edmund Sylvester’s heirs.
Old Capital – DAHP Report: https://fortress.wa.gov/dahp/wisaard/documents/HPIF/0/12/12365.pdf
Stevenson Women’s History Map: http://www.washingtonwomenshistory.org/themes/tours/olympia.aspx accessed 12 March 2012.
Newell, Gordon R. Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen; The Inside Story of Washington’s Capital City & the Hilarious History of 120 Years of State Politics. Seattle, Wash: Superior Pub. Co, 1975., 487.
Johnston, Norman J. Washington’s Audacious State Capitol and Its Builders. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
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