Thematic Consultant Hartley Burr Alexander and Capitol sculptor Lee Lawrie built upon Capitol architect Bertram Goodhue’s concept that the exterior of the building reflect the activities of Government which take place inside the building. The north façade of the Capitol, the main entrance, identifies the building as the seat of government without ever saying “Nebraska State Capitol”. Atop the entrance pylons with separate relief carvings of the United States Shield and a proposed Nebraska State Seal four large engaged figures – Wisdom, Justice, Power and Mercy – identified as “Constant Guardians of the Law” eloquently establish the purpose of the building. The 93 individual county names forming a frieze around the building identify the communities and people who make up the state and proclaim the building is their seat of government.
Establishing the purpose of the building on the north, the east and west façade pavilions identify the function of government housed within. The two legislative chambers are contained in the east and west arms of the interior cross within the outer square. Relief sculpture on the east and west pavilions identify historic events in which citizens gained representation in old and new world governments. The west side shows events in Greek and Roman political history; the east side shows individual rights being expanded in the Americas.
The south arm of the cross and south pavilion house the judicial functions of government. Across the top of the pavilion are Lawrie’s engaged sculptures of great lawgivers through the ages, beginning with Minos and ending with Napoleon on the interior courtyard corners of the pavilion. Above figures such as Hammurabi, Solomon and Charlemagne, a quotation from Aristotle further identifies the purpose of the building. Beneath the arched windows of the State Law Library, the legal documents forming the foundation of modern democracy are carved in relief.
The importance of agriculture is represented throughout the artwork and symbolism in the Capitol. Lawrie’s 19 foot tall bronze “Sower” standing at the top of the golden tile dome is a universal symbol of agriculture as the source for all civilization. Once people were freed from the constant need to find food by the ability of agriculture to produce surpluses, civilizations began to flourish. The arts and philosophy expanded as governments developed and people began to work together for a more noble life. Beneath the “Sower” and circling the tower is the mosaic of the Thunderbird. This Native American figure represents the rain upon which Nebraska’s first and pioneer farmers are dependent. Water is essential for the productivity of the prairies and cropland.
Flanking the grand north stair leading to the main entrance are wing walls carved with bison and corn sacred to Nebraska’s first people. Inscribed upon the bison panels are the names of tribes with ties to Nebraska and poems and prayers from those groups. Above Lawrie’s relief panel at the top of the stairs, the “Spirit of the Pioneer”, corn, wheat and bison are carved in the arch as an ornamental border. The bronze doors leading into the Capitol include symbols of Nebraska’s first people arrows and bison, and hunters with bows beside wolves and pronghorns.
On the interior of the Capitol Lawrie’s designs are featured in the capitals of the many marble columns and in relief decoration in the executive, legislative and judicial chambers. Lawrie used the corn motif in many ways throughout the interior relief sculpture in the building. The designs use the same basic form of ear and husks, but he modified the design for different applications. These variations on the corn theme are used in the Governor’s Office and the Supreme Court, as well as column capitals.
In the Foyer, which showcases activities of life and society, Alexander’s program called for relief sculpture at the top of the Kasota stone pilasters which divide the hall into the three bays and visually support the arched ceiling. These panels symbolize the course of human life from childhood to youth, and on to maturity and age. As with all of Lawrie’s sculpture, these panels illustrate his skill in creating compositions of depth and dimension in low relief.
In Alexander’s program the East and West Legislative Chambers represented the two societies which make Nebraska their agricultural home, the First Peoples and the European pioneers that followed. In the front of each room Lawrie’s relief flanks the voting panel and represents the theme of the room and its associated function. In the East, former Senate, Chamber, the figures represent the wisdom needed to create laws. The Native American Counsellor and Guide represent wisdom of word and wisdom of action. In the West, former House, Chamber, the pioneer family stands for the individual citizens Legislators represent as they make laws.
During the design competition, the Nebraska Capitol Commission suggested the state needed a new state seal. Goodhue and Lawrie created a coat of arms style seal with Nebraska iconography. Their seal was carved in several locations throughout the Capitol. The front façade of the Capitol, the East Chamber and the Supreme Court all have versions of this coat of arms style new state seal. the new design was not adopted and the bicameral at the time adopted the existing historic state seal into statute.