John V. Bennes – the man behind the Grand Staircase

In recent blog posts reference has been made to John Bennes, the architect who designed EOU’s Grand Staircase as well as Inlow and Ackerman halls.  But what is his backstory?

John Virginius Bennes was born on August 23, 1867 in rural Illinois to parents who had immigrated to the United States from what is now the Czech Republic. His family moved to Chicago when he was a young child. Benes was likely the spelling of his surname at that time. His father possibly designed the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago. Details of John Bennes’ early years are sparse, but we do know that he studied architecture at Prague University, graduating in 1890.

After completing his architectural studies, Bennes returned to Chicago and worked as an architect in that city until 1900. He certainly knew of and may have been acquainted with Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, Bennes and Wright were contemporaries — born just months apart in 1867.

Bennes married in 1899, and in 1900 relocated with his new wife to Baker City, Oregon. Some accounts indicate that Bennes was drawn to Baker by the gold boom at the time. One of his early design projects in Baker City was a makeover of the interior of the Geiser Grand Hotel. Bennes designed many residences in the city, as well as its 1903 City Hall and the hotel at the nearby Hot Lake resort.

Bennes and his family moved to Portland in 1906, most likely because he felt there were better opportunities there than in Baker. He and two partners formed the architectural firm Bennes, Hendricks & Tobey. Bennes is credited with introducing the Prairie School of design to Portland residential architecture, though his designs covered virtually all styles.  He also designed many commercial and retail buildings, including Portland’s Broadway Hotel, Pacific Hardware & Steel Company Warehouse, and Hollywood Theater, and Astoria’s Liberty Theater.

The portrait of John Bennes below (ca. 1916) is from the Photographic Business and Professional Directory, Portland, Oregon, 1916.


In 1907 Bennes was hired by Oregon Agricultural College to design a number of buildings, including a new cattle stable (dairy barn) and engineering shops facilities. This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted until 1941 and included the design of more than thirty-five new buildings and more than a dozen building expansions or renovations for the Oregon State campus.  Many of the Bennes designed buildings form the core of OSU’s National Register Historic District.

Bennes Glassow 2

Bennes also designed five buildings or building additions for Western Oregon University, the administration building at Southern Oregon University, and the three design projects mentioned above for Eastern Oregon University.

Bennes 1941 2

Bennes retired in 1941 and moved to California. He died on November 29, 1943.  In all, Bennes designed hundreds of residences and buildings during his forty-plus years in Oregon. More than fifty-five of the structures he designed are on the National Register of Historic places, either as individually designated resources or as contributing resources in historic districts. Bennes’ Oregon roots are in the eastern part of the state, which makes saving EOU’s Grand Staircase all the more important.


Special thanks to Larry Landis, our guest blogger this week.  Larry is the director of the Special Collections & Archives Research Center of the Oregon State University Libraries and Press. He has been at OSU since early 1991, and for many years served as University Archivist. His research interests are the history of OSU, especially its built environment, and architect John V. Bennes. He has done numerous presentations on Bennes, including talks for the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland and the Oregon Encyclopedia. Landis is currently writing a pictorial history of OSU, to be published by the OSU Press in Fall 2015.






Pictures say it all…

Welcome to the Save the Grand Staircase blog.  Whether you came here by intent or by happenstance, we are glad that you found us.

The Grand Staircase is located on the Eastern Oregon University campus at the intersection of L Avenue and 9th Street in La Grande, Oregon and could easily be called an architectural treasure.

 It is a five tiered concrete structure of ornamental balustrades and balusters built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

balusters and balustrades 2

The Grand Staircase was designed by John Bennes and completed in 1929.

Staircase construction

For decades it served the campus…

Served the campus

…and the community.

and the community

Unfortunately, over time, ground movement, pressure from an underground stream, harsh   La Grande winters, and vandalism started to take their toll on the structure.

harsh winters

This photo was taken in 1979, the same year the staircase was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1979 photo

In 2004, the Grand Staircase was closed to public use.

Staircase profile pic

In 2008 a study found that approximately 60% of the staircase was in need of significant repair…

significant repair

…or reconstruction.

or reconstruction

Its condition continues to deteriorate.

continues to deteriorate

In November of 2014, the Grand Staircase was chosen for inclusion on Oregon’s Most Endangered Places List – 2015. Development of a strategy for preservation and funding is underway.

How you  can help save and restore the Grand Staircase:

  • Like us on Facebook here and invite your friends to like us too.
  • Tell others about the Grand Staircase and how its restoration would be of historical and cultural significance, not just to EOU, the city of La Grande, and the state of Oregon, but to all of us


All black and white photos in this post are from the EOU Pierce Library.  Color photos were taken by Gary Olson.