Sunday, January 24, 2016


I have to admit that my initial response to the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln was a mixture of snickering and incredulity.  It looked like a cross between the Ghostbusters building and a state prison--which just goes to show my ignorance.
View from the front
The building was designed by Bertram Goodhue (1869-1924), a celebrated American architect known for his Neo-Gothic buildings. The Nebraska State Capitol is part Classical, part Neo-Gothic.
View of the back
I was surprised to discover that I am familiar with two other buildings Goodhue designed, the California Tower (1915) in Balboa Park, San Diego:
Photo from here
. . . and the Los Angeles Central Library, finished in 1924, the same year as the Nebraska Capitol:
Photo from here
The capitol's 400-foot tower can be seen from as far away as 30 miles, giving the building the nickname "The Tower on the Plains." It is the second-tallest state capitol, topped only by Louisiana's capitol. Thematically, it is said to represent a plant thrusting its way heavenward, referring to the importance of agriculture in this state. This was actually the first state capitol with a functional tower--a much more modern design than the traditional but purely decorative domes seen on so many capitols. Goodhue said he wanted to design "something quite unlike the usual [capitol building], with its veneered order and invariable Roman dome."

I love buildings with statues on the top, but with a 400-foot tower, it's hard to see what the statue is. (By comparison, the tallest spire on the Salt Lake LDS Temple, which is topped by a 12.5-foot statue, is a mere 223 feet.) What do you think that is up there?

 I found a picture online of what is called "the finial," a 19.5-foot-tall man sowing seeds.
Photo from here

In spite of my initial impression, it didn't take long to fall in love with the Nebraska Capitol. Pediments flanking the front stairs are inscribed with the words "Honour to pioneers who broke the sods that men to come might live" and "Honour to citizens who build an house of state where men live well."

Bisons in bas relief decorate the side panels, each with its own message. This one has the words of a Navajo hymn engraved on its side: "In beauty I walk. With beauty before me I walk. With beauty behind me I walk. With beauty above and about me I walk."

A frieze above the main entrance depicts idealized pioneers walking alongside a covered wagon being pulled by two oxen. Beneath are the words "The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen," the words of native son and philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander, the man who chose all the text used throughout the building.

A bronze Abraham Lincoln, for whom the city was named, stands quietly, reverently, as if he is looking down at a grave. Behind him the words of the Gettysburg Address are carved into the granite backdrop:
Does this Lincoln look familiar to you? If you have been to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., he should. The sculptor of both this standing Lincoln and the giant sitting Lincoln in Washington was Daniel Chester French, and the designer of the wall behind Lincoln here is the same man who designed the Lincoln Memorial building, Henry Bacon.
 (The two photos above are from here.) French said that he "purposely tried to represent Lincoln bearing the burdens and perplexities and problems of the Great War." I love the tired wrinkles surrounding Abe's eyes and his messy mop of hair.

The public enters the capitol from the basement, which feels like a mausoleum--no windows, lots of stone, vaulted ceilings, subtle lighting, and haunting echoes:
I almost expected to see Harry Potter's basilisk come slithering around the corner.
We emerged on the ground level:
The design of the building is a "cross within a square." Four long corridors enclose four interior courtyards.

The chandelier hanging from the central dome is exquisite:
Suddenly, there was riotous color everywhere. Multi-colored tiled domes make this one of the most beautiful of all the state capitols we've visited:

The use of gold leaf reminds me of a Klimt painting:

The vaulted corridors and windows and the intricacy give this capitol a cathedral-like atmosphere:

But the art is anything but reverent. It's an explosion of color and pattern representing Nebraska history:

Even the more traditional art is colorful and action-filled:

In contrast, the marble floors show what on first glance appear to be scenes from Greek mythology:

. . . but which continue the theme of ancient and modern Nebraska history that unifies the art throughout the capitol:
Genius of Fire floor tile

I love the creepy-crawly things encircling this Prometheus:

. . . and this Atlas strongman:

In 1937, Nebraska adopted a unicameral legislative body, the only state in the Union to do so. The capitol still has two rooms for the legislature as it was built prior to the unification of the two bodies. I loved the doors of the East Chamber, also called the Warner Chamber. The central figure is a corn plant symbolizing a Tree of Life, but to me it also makes subtle references to the crucifixion--the hard-angle cross shape, the door handles where the feet would rest, the two figures gazing lovingly at it. It has all the key elements of a crucifix except for a figure on the cross. 

We paid a brief visit to the West Chamber, the room currently used by the legislature:

Bronze busts in the corridors pay tribute to Nebraska's superstars, Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town; John J. Pershing, U.S. Army General in World War I:

. . . "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Wild West showman; and one of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, whose books I discuss in the READING section at the end of this post:

We also took a peak in the Capitol Library, not as spectacular as some we've seen, but still quite posh:

After exploring the capitol's large base, it was time to ascend the heights of the 400-foot tower. Although the tiny gilt elevator seemed like a better choice than all those flights of stairs, it looked like something out of a fantasy novel, an elevator that might take us somewhere other than where we had planned to go:
However, we made it to the top without any detours. A walkway around the top of the tower is open to the sky and rimmed by windows:
. . . giving a spectacular 360 ° view of Lincoln and the surrounding prairie:
Nebraska is so f-l-a-t:

St. Mary's Catholic church across the street from the capitol was our next destination, and it was fun to get a bird's-eye view of it:

We also got a good luck at the octagonal interior tip of the tower:
Below the windows below the dome are murals depicting life in Nebraska. Words from Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address encircle the tower below the paintings:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, . . ."

". . . with firmness in the right as God gives us to . . ."

". . . see the right, let us strive on to finish the . . . "

. . . work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, . . . "

". . . to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. . ."

". . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace . . . "

". . . among ourselves and with all nations."
It was a solemn and meaningful way to end our tour of the capitol.

Either My Antonia or O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather (or both) is a must-read for anyone passing through Nebraska. Cather (1873-1947) was a tender chronicler of frontier life on the Great Plains, especially in the Nebraska Territory. Cather's family moved to Nebraska in 1883, sixteen years after it was granted statehood, but she was drawn to its history, particularly to the tales of the men and women who farmed the land, befriended the Indians, and created permanent settlements.  My Antonia tells the story of a group of such people as seen through the eyes of a young attorney looking back at his youth. His memories focus specifically on one young, free-spirited Bohemian girl named Antonia Shimerda. 
 Here is a sampling of Cather's rich description from My Antonia:

"I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass."

"All day the storm went on. The snow did not fall this time, it simply spilled out of heaven, like thousands of feather beds being emptied."

"The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seeds as they went. The next summer when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had a sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake's story, but insist that the sunflower was native to these plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom."

"Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons."

"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running."

"There were no clouds; the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun."


  1. Some of those mosaics remind me of the Basilica of Guadalupe.

  2. You get so much more from some of these things than I do that at is astounding to me. I don't remember the library or the busts of Cody, etc. Very fun.

  3. Thanks for sharing some Willa Cather with us. I had forgotten how evocative her descriptions of the prairie were. We visited the capital building in Olympia last week. Have you seen that one yet?

    1. Not yet. We only developed our interests in state capitols a couple of years ago, so we have a few cities we need to revisit! How was Olympia's?

  4. Those domes are just incredible. Kind of a shame that great statue atop the building is impossible to appreciate from the ground.