The Grounds | Nebraska State Capitol

In 1999 the Nebraska State Capitol Landscape was co-listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the National Historic Landmark. This designation recognizes Bertram Goodhue’s intent that the setting for the Capitol play an important role in its monumental stature. Ernst Herminghaus, Nebraska’s first professionally trained Landscape Architect, designed the Capitol Landscape plan to enhance the character of the building as viewed from the site and beyond. An approved restoration plan for the Capitol Grounds guides all restoration of this historic landscape.

Bertram Goodhue conceived of the Nebraska State Capitol as the dominant feature on the prairie landscape of Nebraska and specifically Lincoln.  He envisioned the building’s soaring tower as a landmark to be seen from many miles away. In the city’s interior, he envisioned radiating malls leading out and away from the building in the four cardinal directions, ultimately providing vistas back toward the rising tower and four cardinal pavilions. Stylistically, the exterior draws upon Middle Eastern architectural influences with very simple geometric massing and subtle, integrated decoration. Goodhue did not live to see the building completed, but Ernst Herminghaus’ landscape plan would have surely pleased Goodhue with its emphasis on supporting and enhancing the building as the focus of the design.

Ernst Herminghaus was Nebraska’s first professionally trained Landscape Architect. In his design for the Capitol grounds he drew upon the formality of the Beaux Arts style and the informality of park design to create the perfect setting for Goodhue’s monument on the small four square block urban site. To provide proper attention to the building, Herminghaus chose to enclose the site with a ring of oaks. The oaks were not planted on the site proper, but on the outside of the streets circling the building. This enlarged the appearance of the site and provided unobstructed views of the building for those driving or walking around the Capitol. The grounds were not designed for active use; there are no crisscrossing sidewalks, gardens for strolling or pavilions on the site. The grounds’ purpose is to enhance and provide views of the monumental structure. At each entrance and again at the four corners, the landscape opens up and provides direct views of the base and tower together. The rest of the lawn area is dotted with large trees of varying species which limit the view of the base. The palette of the Capitol’s grounds is green, the subtle variation of green provided by the difference species of trees and shrubs. No bright flowers distract from the changing nature of light and shadow on the Indiana limestone façade. The relatively uniform planting of mugo pines around the outer square base of the building screens the foundation, allowing the building to float upon the lawn no matter the season. Subtle variations in conifer accent plants break up the low broad 437’ expanse of limestone without distracting from Lee Lawrie’s relief sculpture above the promenade deck.

Each entrance has a different landscape to emphasize its unique function and design. The main north entrance plaza is flanked by two rows of Concolor firs of descending size. The false perspective provided by the reduced size adds depth to the entrance. The rows of firs enclose the entrance plaza. Once a visitor steps onto the plaza, peripheral views are lost and the grandeur of the entrance is the focal point. The east and west entrances are flanked by a matching pair of trees, planted as sentinels to mark the entrance. On the west side, the entrance walk moves visitors through the Lincoln Monument, Henry Bacon’s architectural setting for Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln at Gettysburg statue. The Monument is enclosed with tall junipers focusing attention on the statue of Abraham Lincoln until the visitor passes through and the landscape opens to reveal the west pavilion, imposing yet welcoming. At the south entrance, which includes the main staff entrance and loading dock, Herminghaus again uses two rows of firs in descending size to give a depth of perspective to the short entrance walk when viewed from a distance down the only mall or boulevard in existence when the Capitol was constructed in the 1920’s. The islands within the stepped entrance are planted in subtle complementary colors. The red and green of the shrubs provide visual interest and draw attention inward away from the docks on the other side of the limestone walls.