The words “Nebraska State Capitol” do not appear on the exterior of Nebraska’s Capitol to identify the building. Instead, the names of Nebraska’s 93 counties circle the building’s 437′ square base to identify the structure as belonging to all Nebraskans. Across the main entrance pavilion Wisdom, Justice, Power and Mercy are the Guardians of the Law created, administered and enforced within the building. Above the door, Capitol thematic consultant, Hartley Burr Alexander, Ph.D., identifies the citizen’s role in state government: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen”.
The Capitol’s architect Bertram Goodhue organized the county names in the frieze around the building’s exterior in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Counties with the same number of letters in their names were grouped together, longer county names were used to fill the corner pavilions and four letter county names fill spaces at the beginning and end of a series of names. To aid in finding a specific county name on the building an alphabetical list with the side of the Capitol and the direction from the ground floor entrance was created. As second document identifies the north, west, south and east facades of the Capitol and the counties on that side.
With a grant from the Nebraska Humanities Council, now Humanities Nebraska, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of the Capitol Commission created an exterior walking tour and brochure. The brochure is available in the Capitol tour office or at the information desk on ground floor. The line drawings of the sculpture used in the map of the exterior brochure were created by Jan Devriendt and the descriptions of the historical events and their context was authored by Dr. Robert Haller. The Exterior Walking Tour has been adapted to a digital format suitable for smart phone and tablet use.
When the citizens of Nebraska, through an act of the Nebraska Legislature, decided to build a third state Capitol, discussion began on what a Capitol is or should be. The Nebraska Capitol Commission, and Professional Advisor Thomas Rogers Kimball, FAIA, identified the concept for the new Capitol –
“The Capitol of a State is the outward sign of the character of its people. Their respect for its traditions and history, their belief in its importance and worth, and their love of its fair name; all find expression in its Capitol.
Of Nebraska highway of progress, provider of man’s necessities, battle-ground of freedom, distributor of learning, home of the volunteer let the new Capitol be a symbol.
Rome’s greatest basilica is not the only legacy left by the architects of St. Peter’s. Michelangelo’s dome was chosen, but to the designs of San Gallo, Bramante, and other unsuccessful competitors, the world owes many of its greatest monuments! Beside a noble Capitol for Nebraska, may not this competition yield to Architecture a wider heritage?”
Hartley Burr Alexander, Professor of Philosophy and Thematic Consultant for Capitol Sumbolism, wrote “…public buildings; they should be so provided with images of things fair and noble that whoever enters…should find himself gladdened and bettered because of that passage…for the end of public works is not alone the convenience of public business…but also the inspiration of all true men and the glory of all true citizenship.”
Bertram Goodhue responded to this discussion by designing a Capitol which functionally provided for the operation of state government and serves as a monument to the State of Nebraska and its citizens.
Thomas Rogers Kimball, FAIA, professional advisor to the Capitol Commission, wrote a competition which did not dictate or even suggest a favored building style or form. In response to the requirement that the new Capitol be constructed in a fiscally responsible manner, Goodhue’s “cross within square” floor plan allowed construction to begin with the old Capitol standing. First the north and south U-shaped sections of the outer square were constructed around the old Capitol. Then offices were moved from the old Capitol to the new building, and the old building demolished. The second construction phase included the east side of the square and the north, south and east arms of the interior cross. Third phase construction completed the central tower. In the final phase, workers finished the remaining west arm of the cross, completing the building in 1932 after ten years of construction. When landscaping was completed in 1934, the Capitol was fully paid for at a cost of $9.8 million.
The Nebraska State Capitol has design elements and detailing from many architectural styles and periods. Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Roman, Greek and Gothic influences can all be seen. In combining these elements, Goodhue avoided the usual domed edifice modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. His idea was to move capitol construction into the 20th century with the use of new technology. Steel frame construction techniques allowed him to construct an office tower to efficiently house the agencies of government. Goodhue used classical design elements in a modern context, developing a capitol which expresses its monumentality in balance and symmetry. Whatever its stylistic references, the building is often described as “the Nation’s first truly vernacular Capitol” because its overall scheme draws upon the Great Plains for inspiration. The broad low base of the Capitol reflects the gently rolling hills of Nebraska and the tall tower stands visible on the horizon just as the first grain elevators and church steeples stood as landmarks to the pioneers who built the state’s agricultural foundation. Goodhue’s design, representing the geography of Nebraska, is the landscape upon which Hartley Burr Alexander and the artists Lee Lawrie and Hildreth Meiere construct the story of the people of Nebraska, the First People and the pioneers who followed them onto the plains. The exterior sculpture and decoration details depict the philosophical and legal foundations of our current Western system of government while the interior decoration expresses the natural and social development of Nebraska.