PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – After her grandfather saved a governor’s portrait from the burning walls of the Oregon State Capitol, only for the portrait to later disappear, Joan Plank and the Oregon State Capitol Foundation, are on a mission to find other missing governor’s portraits – searching for pieces of Oregon history that could be hiding around the state.
The Oregon State Capitol Foundation started their search for Oregon governor’s portraits three of four years ago and says while some portraits were lost in a fire at the capitol in 1935, they believe some were saved and other portraits could be out there.
The fire started in the basement of the capitol and may have been fueled by old paper and archives, according to Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. Officials say no foul play was suspected.
“It was just a tremendous blaze,” Tymchuk said.
According to Tymchuk, there was one death from the fire; a Willamette University student, and volunteer firefighter, who was killed by a falling piece of wood.
Before the fire burned the capitol to the ground, Plank – Oregon State Capitol Foundation executive board member – says her grandfather saved a portrait of his uncle – former Governor Theodore T. Geer (who served from 1899-1903) – from the burning building.
“The story was, and we’ve been able to confirm it, that my grandfather Arch Geer — we called him ‘Pappy,’ — went into the capitol and took out the T.T. Geer portrait and put it on a lawn. There’s also some evidence that some other portraits were removed from the building and put on the lawn, they were trying to get them out for safekeeping,” Plank said.
“Somewhere along the line, they got lost. And some years later, my grandfather was working at Willamette University in the maintenance department and found the T.T. Geer portrait in storage somewhere at Willamette University – which makes sense, it’s right across the street,” Plank explained.
She says her grandfather worked with then-Senator Mark Hatfield to restore the portrait and arranged to have it displayed at MacLaren School in Woodburn.
Later, former Secretary of State Norma Paulus (who served as secretary from 1977-1985) was on a mission to find state artifacts and returned the portrait of Gov. Geer to the capitol after finding it at the school, Plank said.
The portrait hung outside the capitol chambers until recent renovations.
Inspired to find other portraits, the Oregon State Capitol Foundation is asking Oregonians to join the search, asking “what’s in your attic?” The organization believes portraits could be in public buildings, schools, courthouses, museums, businesses, or even in some Oregon homes.
“My grandfather took it out and saved it, it got lost, and then it got found. We know there were other portraits in the building at the time, we found newspaper articles to support that, and we don’t know what happened to them,” Plank said.
Since launching the portrait project, the foundation has found nine gubernatorial portraits — finding one as recently as late October 2023.
Plank declined to say who the recently discovered portrait depicts as the foundation is working with the family who found the portrait — but did say the others that were found include governors Joseph Lane, John Davis, Sylvester Pennoyer, William Paine Lord, George Chamberlain, Charles Sprague, and James Douglas McKay — whose portrait was found at McKay High School in Salem.
Adding to that list, Plank says a portrait of former Governor James Withycombe was found by his great-great-granddaughter, Claire Withycombe, as she reported in the Salem Statesman Journal in 2021. Plank says his portrait was discovered in Claire’s grandmother’s home in Hillsboro.
Now, the Oregon State Capitol Foundation is looking for about 21 portraits and has a full list of those they are looking for on their website. They’ve also enlisted the help of a student and a group of interns at Portland State University who are combing through newspaper articles and making calls for clues.
Plank points out that the foundation is not necessarily asking for the portraits back, but they want to know where they are.
“We don’t necessarily want to bring them into the building because some people have them in their private homes and we’re certainly not going to list addresses or anything, but we’ll just say ‘portrait found in a private home’ or something like that,” Plank said. “People may not want to give up the portraits they have and that’s certainly their call.”
Tymchuk notes that the portraits are likely “worth more for historical purposes than they are probably in monetary value.”
“It’s great to have a historic record of what [the governors] look like. It’s one thing to say, well here’s a name. It’s another thing to say here’s a name and here is who that was and here’s what they look like,” Tymchuk said. “We certainly know what every president of the United States looked like; it’d be great to know what every governor of Oregon looked like.”
“We’re very excited that we’re having success and it’s a very fun project, Plank said.
“Our mission is to share the history of the Capitol, engage people in our democracy through a variety of programs and projects and so this was just one that because we’ve always been associated with the governor’s portraits, that we found exciting,” Plank said. “And then with the background of my grandfather, I was motivated to see if we could find more.”