Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The State Capitol Building – Lincoln Nebraska

…continuing with our July road trip.

What other attractions could we explore in Lincoln?  The old depots and the old Haymarket area were nifty, but I had one more venue in mind for our little family group.

Our next stop was at Nebraska’s State Capitol building, in itself a tourist attraction.  The State Capitol building is the result of a nationwide design competition won by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. (1869 – 1924) It is the USA’s first statehouse that, with its ‘office tower’, was a radical departure from the prototypical design of our national capitol building in Washington D.C. 

With burgeoning westward migration and growing demand for a trans-continental railroad, President Franklin Pierce signed the Nebraska-Kansas Act in 1854, thereby creating the Nebraska Territory.  After much area wide debate and controversy, Nebraska’s new capital site, the village of Lancaster, was chosen and then renamed…and Lincoln Nebraska was born. 

No less than 2 Territorial Capitol buildings plus 2 State Capitol buildings preceded this structure.  Both the first and second State Capitol buildings suffered from poor construction, so in 1919, the State Legislature passed a bit to provide for the construction of the current State Capitol building.  Built in 4 phases over a ten year period from 1922 to 1932, the total cost of the building, complete with furnishings and landscaping, came in under budget at just under $10 million…and it was fully paid for upon completion.

The Lincoln Monument seen above is located on the West Plaza of the Capitol building and it actually predates the Capitol itself.   Sculptor Daniel Chester French, (1850 – 1931), received the commission for this monument in 1909.  He is the same sculpture who created “The Minute Man” in Concord Massachusetts and the Gallaudet Memorial in Washington D.C.  Lincoln’s attitude on this sculpture is one of reverence over a grave.  This is fitting as the statue is standing on a granite pedestal with the Gettysburg Address carved into the stone.

FYI, the Nebraska Capitol Building is clad with Indiana limestone, it has a square base measuring 437 feet on each side…and the overall plan was to build a cross within a square.  The 400 foot tall domed tower rises from the center of this base and it in turn is topped with sculptor Lee Lawrie’s 9.5 ton, 19 foot tall bronze figure of “The Sower”, a man hand-sowing grain, symbolic of the importance of agriculture to the State of Nebraska and the World… As you will read below, Lee Lawrie had an even broader role in the completion of this striking structure.

The Capitol’s architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, had selected Lee Lawrie, (1877 – 1962) as the sculptor for this monumental project.  It wasn’t all about building a structure, it also needed to commemorate history and have meaning for those who visit here and work here.  Consequently, the structure’s exterior stone carvings represent historic events in the 3,000 year evolution of democracy as a form of government.  All 4 sides of the Capitol display a variety of carvings…with the front being the most spectacular.  But…we didn’t enter the building that way and it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside!  The carvings over the west entrance to the Capitol show key events in Greek and Roman history.

FYI…Lee Lawrie also created the famed sculpture of “Atlas” holding the world on his shoulders at New York City’s Rockefeller Center. 

My photographic skills and my camera just aren’t up to the task of capturing the impressive look and beauty of the domed corridor in the Nebraska Capitol Building.  The dim lighting didn’t help and the glare from that big window was definitely factors.  Nevertheless, I think that you can get a feel for the ornate and detailed interior of this main passageway.  Spectacular marble mosaic floors and vaulted polychrome tile ceilings, combined with the detailed light fixtures and statues/busts in niches along the way…it all results in a bit of sensory overload…

This first photo gives you an idea…just a partial ground level view…of the large marble mosaic in the center of the Rotunda’s floor.  The center piece is of “Earth as the Life-giver” and surrounding her are symbols of Water, Fire, Air and Soil.  In the borders around the elements one can glimpse prehistoric life in Nebraska.

This is a close up of yet another marble mosaic that I noted as we wandered through the Capitol building.  I don’t know if it has a title or not but it appears to be ‘Mother Nature’ with some of her creatures.  The detail is pretty stunning when you consider that it’s made from stone.

Hildreth Meiere (1892 – 1961) was the artist that designed both these spectacular marble mosaic floors and the polychrome tile ceilings.  She had worked on a number of commissions for the architect Bertram Goodhue.  Goodhue believed that decoration was a fundamental element as regarded monumental architecture.  Among other notable works, Meiere also completed the mosaics in the dome of the National Academy of Science in Washington D.C.  However, credit for the subject matter presented in her work in this Capitol Building really belong to the University of Nebraska’s  renowned Professor of Philosophy, Hartley Burr Alexander. (1873 – 1939) He worked with both Lawrie and Meire as the “Capitol thematic consultant” for the project.  The goal was to tell the story of civilization as well as Nebraska’s place in that history.

If you thought that the floors and sculptures were amazing, consider the spectacular tile work on the ceilings, arches and domes throughout the building!  While Hildreth Meiere designed the work with the thematic guidance of Dr. Alexander, it was the De Paoli Company and the R. Guastavino Company, both from New York City, which executed the designs.  De Paoli worked on the marble and Guastavino in ceramic and “Akoustolith” tiles.

I just took a few photos of the ceilings and arches to provide viewers a glimpse of a couple of the large number of themed designs that were executed by the artist and the Cuastavino Company throughout the Capitol Building.  In the vestibule, the theme is Nature’s Gifts to Man on the Plains.  On the ceiling of the Senate Chamber, Native American Life is depicted in 4 large panels: Buffalo Hunt, War Party, Women Hoeing Corn, and Peace Council.  The arches and ceiling medallions, as envisioned by Dr. Alexander, represent time, Traditions of the Past, Life of the Present, and Ideals of the Future.

Yes…I did have to look up “Akoustolith” tiles.  They are a porus ceramic material resembling stone that was a patented product developed between Rafael Guastavino Jr. and Harvard professor Wallace Sabine.  It was used to limit acoustic reflection and noise in large vaulted ceilings…

This striking mural on the door of the former East Chamber of the Capitol Building, now renamed the Warner Chamber, symbolizes the aboriginal life of the Native Americans, the First People of Nebraska.  Corn, the Native People’s main agricultural crop and key food source, is in the center of the doorway…represented as the tree of life.  The Thunderbird, a symbol of rain and life, is featured at its center.  On opposite sides of the door, a man is standing on an otter, a symbol of medicine and a woman is standing on a turtle, a symbol of fertility. 

While I didn’t take a photo of the door leading to the West Chamber, aka known as the Unicameral Chamber, its painting symbolizes the European age of settlement with the successive appearances of Spanish, French and Anglo-Americans on Nebraska soil.

The photo shows the Unicameral Legislature’s Chamber in Nebraska’s Capitol Building.  Note all the added plexi-glass dividers that were installed in this era of Covid-19.

I definitely learned something new… Nebraska, which I did know has a unicameral/one house legislature, wasn’t originally set up that way.  In the east and west arms of the cross on the square structural design, are the two chambers of Nebraska’s legislature.  The state had a bicameral government until 1937, when the unicameral format was initiated.  Members of the single house of the Nebraska Legislature are referred to as Senators.  Not only is the Legislature unicameral, but it doesn’t officially recognize a political party affiliation…unique among the other states in the USA.  Also, with only 49 members, it is also the smallest legislature in the country.  

The Unicameral Legislative Chamber is also known as the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber.  George Norris, a “New Deal Republican” who had settled in McCook Nebraska, is given the bulk of the credit for the elimination of the bicameral legislature.  As he said, the two-house system was outdated, inefficient and unnecessary.  He pointed out that the bicameral system was modeled after the British Parliament, where members of the House of Commons are elected by the people and the King appointed members of the House of Lords.  Since there was only one class of citizen in the USA, why should we elect and pay people to overlap each other’s political jurisdiction?

This mural in the Capitol’s vestibule, is entitled “The House Raising”.  It was completed by James Penney in 1963.  Penney has 3 murals on display in this monumental building.

This second mural is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building.  It is entitled “Labors of the Hand” and it was completed by Kenneth Evett in 1954.  Two other murals by Evett are also on display in the Rotunda.

This third mural covers one of my nostalgic favorite topics.  “The Coming of Railroad” is on display in the Great Hall.  It was completed by F. John Miller in 1966 and it represents the development of Nebraska based on the expansion of the railroads.

If you compare the date the Capitol was completed with the dates of these murals, you might ask, what took so long for their completion?  Architect Bertram Goodhue did indeed plan for 20 murals in the monumental hallways, vestibule and great hall, even providing recesses spaces for them.  However in 1933, as the Great Depression worsened, the Nebraska Legislature re-appropriated the Capitol Commission’s unspent budget and nothing happened with the murals again until 1951 when the project was once again funded.  Over the next several decades, a series of competitions were held and artists were selected to complete the murals.  Dr. Alexander’s original thematic plan guided the subject matter for these murals.  The first mural was completed in 1954 and the last was on display by 1996.   Seven different artists completed works for this program.

Tours of this historic Capitol Building are available.  There is so much more to see than I was able to photograph or write about.  To learn more, go to Nebraska State Capitol | National Historic Landmark | Lincoln, Nebraska.

Then it was time to go up to the viewing platform at the top of the Capitol’s tower.  Even the elevators are a work of art!  They are small inside though and they are sort of hidden from view on the main level.

This is one view from the Capitol’s tower.  You can see downtown Lincoln…definitely not a city of skyscrapers… The city is the second largest in Nebraska with a metropolitan area of about 360,000 people. 

Famous people from Lincoln include William Jennings Bryan, Willa Cather, Dick Cavett, Dick Cheney, Charles G. Dawes, Sandy Dennis, Lane Kiffin, Gordon MacRae and Hilary Swank.  

Off in the distance, we could see these huge grain elevators.  Agriculture is of major importance to the local economy.  Corn is the most widely grown crop with annual production of over 1.6 billion bushels…and the state ranking third in the USA in corn production.  Nebraska is 4th in soybean production as well.

Did you know that Lincoln has large populations of Vietnamese, Burmese ethnic minorities (Karen), Sudanese and Yazidi (Iraqi ethnic minority) that have resettled here?  The public schools provides support for about 3,000 students from 150 countries who spoke 125 different languages.

Note the large railyard in the distance.  Railroads have been critical to Lincoln’s and Nebraska’s development.  The first Burlington and Missouri River Railroad’s first train arrived in Lincoln in June of 187o.  The Midland Pacific (1871) and the Atchison and Nebraska (1872) soon followed.  The Union Pacific Railroad began service in 1877.  By 1892, 3 more railroads had extended service to the city and it became a true rail hub... I’m sure that this remaining railyard is but a shadow of what used to be.

One other striking view stood out from Nebraska’s State Capitol Building’s tower…and later from ground level.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was dedicated on December 11, 1911.  It replaced an earlier church that had burned down.  For many years, St. Mary’s was the only parish in Lincoln to offer all grade levels through high school.  In 1965, a new cathedral was built in Lincoln, so now St. Mary’s is referred to as ‘the old Cathedral’.  In 2019, St. Mary’s School was closed permanently.  In any case, this church is a dominating and eye-catching structure.

That’s all for now… Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Beautiful architecture...I really love the ceiling and the marble mosaic floors. Just gorgeous!

  2. Well, I admit I didn't expect this amount of art inside the capitol building. Wow!

  3. David what amazing buildings , really are wonderful, I love the
    Cathedral! really beautiful!"!!

  4. The capital is definitely impressive and very different than most capitol buildings. It looks like the inside was worth exploring as well.

  5. The Nebraska capital is more like a work of art than a government building, David. Thanks for the detailed tour and background information. I appreciated reading about Hildreth Meire as well and her contributions to this beautiful building interiors.

  6. Don't forget Nebraska is also the second largest cattle producer in the US after Texas (although Texas produces nearly double what Nebraska does)!