What does your husband do, Mrs. Bennes?…

With fall term classes starting at Eastern Oregon University this coming Monday (September 28) it seemed like a perfect time to share the 1940 U.S. Federal Census record we found for John Virginius Bennes, the architect and genius behind the Grand Staircase.

Anyone who has pursued census records for genealogical research or other purposes knows that how the information is captured can be “interesting”.  In all fairness to census takers in the past, traipsing from house to house, questioning whomever was home or perhaps a neighbor, and trying to capture what was related in a very small space must have, at times, been arduous.

In 1940 the Bennes household had a lot to be proud of.  John Bennes and his wife Annice Smalley’s son John (who was living with them at the time) was an opera singer.  And, Bennes, who was nearing retirement, had amassed an impressive portfolio…

  • He had introduced the Prairie School of Design to Portland residential architecture.
  • He had designed the Broadway Hotel and Hollywood Theater in Portland as well as Astoria’s Liberty Theater.
  • He had designed several buildings at the Oregon College of Education, the administration building at Southern Oregon College of Education, Inlow Hall and J.H. Ackerman Elementary school at Eastern Oregon College of Education.
  • He had spent the last 33 years working with Oregon State College (now OSU) where he had designed more than 35 new buildings and more than a dozen building expansions or renovations!
  • And, of course, he had designed the Grand Staircase at EOU in La Grande.

We will never know who the 1940 census taker talked to or what they told tell when he asked the question “What does John Virginius Bennes do for a living?”

We do, however, know what he recorded…


John Bennes census

John Bennes census 2

Occupation: Architect

Industry: School Houses, etc.

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The Grand Staircase at Eastern Oregon University was completed in 1929.  Sadly, it has deteriorated over the decades and was closed to public use in 2004.

In November of 2014 it was chosen for inclusion on Restore Oregon’s Most Endangered Places List.

We started this blog and the accompanying Facebook page that same month.  Our intent is to raise awareness of the Grand Staircase and its architectural significance, post photographs and information of historical interest about the staircase, and share the stories and memories of those who love the staircase as much as we do.

To see a pictorial history of the staircase please visit our About page.

If you have any questions or have Grand Staircase memories, stories, or photos you would like to share please contact us at savethegrandstaircase@gmail.com.



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