Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The present Nebraska State Capitol was authorized by the legislature in 1918 as a memorial replacement of the crumbling second capitol. The Nebraska State Capitol Commission adopted Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball's novel procedure for the choosing of an architect. They pitted three Nebraska architects against seven invited outsiders in a double-blind competition: anonymous submissions to an unidentified panel of judges. Each architect submitted with his drawing a 500-word essay describing the use of a sculptor, a muralist, and a landscapist in the realization of the building on its site. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's tall shaft in the center of a three-story square base won the judges' immediate acceptance as symbolizing the upward aspirations of a people dwelling on the level Plains. Construction began in 1922, and the building was dedicated in 1934, each year's building progress precisely accommodated to the annual legislative appropriation. Goodhue died in 1924, leaving his office and the commission to supervise the building's completion.

The building integrates a variety of monumental architectural styles. The shaft recalls the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria, the north front has the form of the Great Temple of Amon at Karnak, the balustrades and capitals are elements of classical temples, and the vaulting and rotundas are modeled on Byzantine and Gothic structures. The stone was quarried in Italy and Indiana, and the woods and metals were specifically chosen for their uses. Fixtures and decorations incorporate Plains-specific motifs such as maize and the buffalo head as well as more traditional elements such as the fasces.

Goodhue had for twenty-five years integrated the sculpture of Lee Lawrie into his buildings. In 1921 he added young mosaic muralist Hildreth Meiere to his artistic collaboration. In 1923 he added University of Nebraska philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander as "thematic consultant." Initially hired to write inscriptions, his pointed criticisms of the Lawrie flying buffalo led to an invitation to rewrite the artistic program. He then worked intensively by mail with Meiere and Lawrie from their first drawings to the final placement of their works in the building.

From a distance, the first feature of this integrated and collaborative artistic program seen above the gold-leafed dome is The Sower, a huge figure by Lawrie (inspired by French sculptor Aime Millet) whose seeds, visually and symbolically, bring the Plains to life. The cornice relief panels that circle the building depict the history of western law. Near the north steps are four balustrade reliefs in the Mayan style that represent the buffalo and maize as sacred gifts to Native cultures. The entrance to the building is surmounted by a relief that depicts against a gold background the arrival of pioneer settlers to the Plains. The floors of the Great Hall and Rotunda are paved in black-and-white mosaics that render cosmic and geologic evolution in a dramatic form, including precise copies of drawings by E. H. Barbour of the Nebraska State Museum of fossils discovered in the Plains. In the East Chamber the ceiling mosaics are in the style of Sioux painting and beadwork and depict a hunt, hoeing, a war party, and a council fire.

Alexander's inscriptions, while recalling classical and traditional sources, express his conception of the state as a collective body rediscovering its common goals in the building of its "House of State." The thematic program, left unfinished in 1934, was completed in 1996 with the dedication of eight murals by Omaha artist Stephen Roberts in the Memorial Chamber.

Nebraska State Capitol website.

Robert Haller University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Luebke, Frederick, ed. A Harmony of the Arts: The Nebraska State Capitol. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Whitaker, Charles Harris, ed. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Architect and Master of Many Arts. New York: Press of the American Institute of Architects, 1925.

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