Nebraska Capitol architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue included spaces on the walls of public areas for large scale public murals. The themes of these murals were discussed by Goodhue and thematic consultant Hartley Burr Alexander, and included in Alexander’s overall thematic program. On second floor, three were to be in the Vestibule, six in the Foyer and three in the Rotunda. These twelve murals were to illustrate Nebraska manifestations of each chamber’s overall theme as indicated by the floor and ceiling mosaics of Hildreth Meiere. In the octagonal Memorial Chamber on 14th floor at the top of the office tower, eight murals were to be installed.
While the Capitol’s wall murals follow Alexander’s thematic program, the delay in their commissioning and installation due to the Great Depression means they do not exactly follow the artistic style of period and building. They are, however, appropriate representations of the time of their commissioning and interpret the presented themes. Despite the difference in style, they complement rather than distract from the artistic whole. The 20 large scale wall murals were commissioned in separate nationwide competitions.
The first murals commissioned in the quest to complete the original thematic program were the rotunda murals. Created by Colorado artist Kenneth Evett, they were installed in 1956. In 1962 Missourian James Penney won the competition for the Vestibule murals, installed in 1963. Then, with the state’s centennial approaching in 1967, the six large scale mosaics in the great hall or foyer were commissioned in two separate competitions. Jeanne Reynal, an abstract expressionist mosaicist won in both, as did artist and Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska art teacher Reinhold Marxhausen. Arizona artist Charles Clement and Canadian artist F. John Miller were each commissioned to create the remaining mosaic in each competition. Finally, in a 1990 competition, Omaha artist Stephen C. Roberts was commissioned to fill the eight blanks spaces in the 14th floor Memorial Chamber. They were installed in 1996 and completed Alexander’s original Capitol thematic program.
In the Vestibule artwork, Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander’s theme of Nature’s Gifts to Man on the Plains was represented by Hildreth Meiere in polychrome Guastavino tile ceiling mosaics depicting the historic significance of agriculture to developing civilization. On the walls, Alexander established the events leading to the agricultural foundation of Nebraska by the early pioneers, the homesteader’s campfire, the first furrow and the house raising. These subjects were to be interpreted by the artist. Alexander went so far as to suggest the use of warm tones and the time of day appropriate for each scene.
Goodhue divided the Foyer or Great Hall in to three bays with arched windows. Alexander’s ceiling medallions in each bay represent time, Traditions of the Past, Life of the Present, and Ideals of the Future. These medallions and the arches in each bay showcase society’s functions; family, education, recreation, reflection, beauty and truth. The six murals in the hall illustrate how these functions are reflected in the growth of Nebraska. The murals were titled, The United State Survey, The Blizzard of 1888, The Tree Planting, The First Railroad, The Building of the Capitol and The Spirit of Nebraska.
In Goodhue’s architectural design, the rotunda is the focus. At the center of the square base it is the grandest of the public chambers. Filled with light that draws the eye up 110 feet into the brightly colored mosaic dome, the Rotunda culminates Alexander’s story of civilization. The winged figures in the dome bear the names of the civic and sacred virtues fundamental to civilized society. Alexander’s thematic program indicated the rotunda wall murals be highly symbolic and flat in their representation of Intellectual Works, Industrial Enterprises and Humanitarian Works in the pursuit of noble life.
On top of the office tower, the Memorial Chamber was redesigned after Goodhue’s death in 1924 to reflect the changing architectural style of the late 1920’s. This change impacted Alexander’s program for artwork on the floor and ceilings. The redesigned Chamber modernized and streamlined decoration in the Art Deco style and left only the wall murals to establish the purpose and theme of the ceremonial space. Alexander’s program dedicated the Memorial Chamber to the types of heroism called for in public service and devotion to humanity, including military service and other activities of heroic service in the interest of the state and mankind.