One of the things that makes the Nebraska Capitol so different from other state Capitols is the artwork. Capitol architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was well versed in the use of ornament to enhance a building’s ability to relate meaning beyond its functional use as an enclosure. As a student of Gothic architecture, he was familiar with the way Gothic churches inspired emotion and included ornament to teach worshipers bible stories. He chose to decorate Nebraska’s Capitol in a similar manner, focusing on Nebraska stories. His early discussions with Capitol thematic consultant and professor of Philosophy Hartley Burr Alexander, Ph.D. set in motion the thematic program for the artwork and inscriptions which tell Nebraska’s story and symbolically represent Nebraska.
Alexander’s themes broadly focus on government and law, nature, and society. These themes are addressed in the main public areas of the Capitol and the ceremonial chambers used for the functions of the three branches of government. The history of government and law in Western Civilization guides the relief sculpture circling the building’s broad flat base. Each entrance pavilion represents one aspect of the law. The north façade represents the spirit of the law in relief. The west façade shows law in the ancient world. The south façade features written and constitutional law. The east façade identifies events in the development of law in the new and modern world.
In the interior’s grand public area, floor mosaics represent nature, and ceiling mosaics represent activities of society. The three main public chambers illustrate the progression of human life in general and in Nebraska. The Vestibule represents the foundation of civilization in agriculture. The Foyer portrays activities which influence the development of societies. The artwork in the Rotunda completes the progression of life with virtues fundamental to civilized society.
In addition to having an organized thematic program, the structural artwork, the exterior and interior relief, and interior floors and ceilings, were created by a team of Goodhue’s choosing. One sculptor, Lee Lawrie, was responsible for the relief sculpture and stone decoration, and one muralist, Hildreth Meiere, designed the floors and ceilings. This continuity of artistic style adds visual cohesion to themes.
One mural in the Capitol is an anomaly. Goodhue’s original architectural competition drawings and Alexander’s thematic program called for the Nebraska State Law Library’s four domes to contain artwork. As a cost cutting measure and for sound quality, the domes were covered with acoustical plaster instead. Local Lincoln artist Elizabeth Dolan received permission to paint “The Spirit of the Prairie” mural on the wall above the entrance doors in 1930. This mural, while not part of the original program, has become a much loved feature in the Capitol.