Well satisfied and very impressed with Omaha’s cultural heritage, we drove west to Lincoln, Nebraska, to visit the State Capitol and the State Museum. At the Nebraska State Museum we enjoyed the large-scale reprints of historic photos of life in the early territory. The photos brought Willa Cather’s writing to mind, especially My Antonia with the impact of the Czech/Bohemian culture playing a role in the development of the story. The enduring legacy of that culture was underscored by the display of a “dudy”…a Czech bagpipe that was brought to Nebraska in 1874 by an immigrant who was one of more than 50,000 Czechs who came to the territory/state between 1856 and World War I.
We also liked the authentic feel of this garage and imagined how this vintage Arnold’s Towing 1950s hotrod jalopy must have looked speeding down an old dirt track…hot pink color and dust swirling behind. Overall, we found that the Nebraska State Museum is good for hands-on children’s history lessons, but it did not have the statewide richness of history, presentation and inspiration that we have enjoyed in other state museums.
From the sidewalk in front of the museum we could see the imposing tower of the Nebraska State Capitol a few blocks away, so we drove over and parked in the shade on the tree-lined street in front of the building. The entrance on the ground floor with its dark stone vaulted ceilings felt more like a cathedral crypt than a state capitol. We found an elevator in a small alcove and rode up to the third floor where things improved slightly as we viewed some of the large artworks. While I was taking photos, Don found that a small group was just about to tour the building and we joined them.
What a difference a passionate guide makes!!! We learned that this was the third capitol building that had been built on this site. The first two were constructed of Nebraska limestone, which does not make a very good building material. The current building was designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, a prominent New York architect, and built out of Indiana limestone. The building also features beautiful marble columns and art and architectural details that reflect the history and culture of the state. The initial ten-year building program had been completed in 1932 but then the Depression hit and money was not available for the major art pieces that had been planned.
In 1967, six large mosaics were installed in the central hall high above the marble columns in time for the centennial celebration of Nebraska’s statehood. The mosaics are more contemporary than the ones that would have been done in 1932 but are completely in keeping with the spirit of the original planned themes: “Nebraska,” “Blizzard of 1888,” “Tree Planting,” “Coming of the Railroad,” “Building of the Capitol,” “Spirit of Nebraska.” These pieces were not to my immediate liking, but once I was introduced to each with its title and back story I began to see how the artist worked different elements together to build to the theme. It is quite exciting to think of the bits of mosaic being pieced together to form these enormous works. In the end, it is hard for me to pick a favorite, but the most haunting is “Blizzard of 1888.”
The blizzard was devastating and many people lost their lives. In the lower right corner in the light area you can faintly make out the figure of the last student leaving the schoolhouse. The panel tells the true story of a brave young teacher who led the children through the storm to safety under the protection of a Native American spirit who is worked into the mosaic on the left. The courage and determination of the early settlers has been beautifully captured in this haunting and powerful piece…but each of the panels deserves attention, and they all help to tell the story of a unique state.
Not only the walls of the capitol tell stories…one of the mosaic floor panels in the great hall is another titled “Creativity.” In this case the figure is trying to capture and rein in inspiration…what a perfect metaphor placed there so many years before the more modern works arrived. The classic figure is a marvelous reminder of the challenges all artists face.
In the rotunda, with its 110-foot ceiling, there are three works expressing the virtues of the state: Labors of Hand, Head, and Heart. The ceramic floor in this area features Mother Nature in the center surrounded by the four elements.
Nebraska is unique in its state governance in that they do not have a separate Senate and House of Representatives as are standard in the other states. They have a unicameral legislature and the 49 senators meet every two years to handle legislative issues and pass a budget (they do hold special sessions and committee meetings in the interim).
Initially, there were Senate and House chambers when the state still had two separate bodies, but now the Senate Chamber, with its western themed décor, is used for a variety of other functions. I love the colorful wooden doors on the old Senate Chamber with their keyhole playfully hidden in the center of a flower and their corncob handles, which are a tribute to a crop that was a vital to the well-being of the local tribes and still today corn plays an important role in Nebraska’s economic welfare.
The Supreme Court chambers and the State Law Library are also housed within the building and again the court design is both dramatic and thoughtful…focusing on the need for discrete conversations. The heavily coffered ceiling helps keep words from being overheard as do the tapestries, carpeting, and even the fabric shaded wall sconces. Above the judges are the words, “Eyes and ears are poor witnesses when the soul is barren” (Heraclitus).
As you leave the building, remember to turn back for one last look at this most impressive structure, look carefully at the top to see the 19-foot-tall “Sower” standing atop the 400-foot-tall central tower. He certainly cast a spell over us on this most inspiring tour of the Nebraska Capitol, but now we had to again turn west to meet up with our cousins in Cheyenne.