Before I obsessively photographed gravestones, I obsessively photographed US State Capitols. I haven’t done much with them recently, or had much of a chance to visit new ones (only one – Louisiana – in the last year!) but I have 25 under my belt and hope for more soon. So I’ve decided that on the first of each month, I’ll post a new, short Capitol tour, focusing especially on how individual capitols I’ve visited reflect and display history and historical interpretation.
I’m starting with one that’s fairly special to me, as it contains the only photos I’ve ever sold to date: the Nebraska Capitol, in Lincoln. Several of the shots you’ll see here now hang in the offices of the University of Nebraska’s Center on Children, Families and the Law.
The Nebraska Capitol is one of only three office tower capitols, along with Louisiana’s and North Dakota’s; not coincidentally, those three are among the most recently constructed (completed in 1932, 1932, and 1934, respectively). Nebraska’s is by far the most impressive, inside and out: occupying four city blocks at the center of downtown Lincoln, it rises nearly 400 feet above the plains. The tower is topped by The Sower, a sculpture that evokes Nebraska’s rural agricultural nature.
It was built in a distinctive art deco style, with most of the construction occurring in the 1920s. The interior reflects the opulence of the period: mosaic and sculpture are everywhere, and the grounds are meticulously kept. Most of the artwork inside deals directly with Nebraska’s history, depicting scenes from Native American life, Anglo settlement, the populist movement, and Nebraskans involved in the sciences.
The long hallways are lined with busts of major figures in Nebraska’s past. Among these are Willa Cather, the author and poet, whose family moved to Nebraska as part of the Homestead movement in the 1880s; General John “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander of US forces during the First World War and a native of the state; Red Cloud, an Ogala Lakota Chief who resisted white settlement of the Plains; “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the Wild West showman; George Norris, a Congressman and Senator from Nebraska who was a major figure during the Great Depression; Grace Abbott, who worked alongside Jane Addams at Chicago’s Hull House and fought for reform against child labor; and of course William Jennings Bryan, the famed orator, Secretary of State, and three-time Democratic candidate for President, who got his start in politics in Lincoln. The full list – the Nebraska Hall of Fame – can be seen here.
One of the most unique features of Nebraska’s capitol – and its politics in general – is its unicameral and non-partisan legislature. George Norris (see above) convinced the state to adopt a one-house legislature, arguing that it was both a waste of money – particularly important in the early years of the Depression – and undemocratic, based as it was on the British Parliamentary system (a much worse argument overall). An amendment was introduced in 1931 to change the legislature, and Nebraska adopted the form in 1934. It is the only state with either a unicameral legislature or a non-partisan one. The capitol was built with two houses; the old Nebraska Senate, the smaller of the two, now serves as a multipurpose large meeting space. I was able to enter it on a private tour, and it’s a shame the room is fully out of view, as it’s a beautiful space.
See below for several other images of the inside and outside of the capitol. Click on any of the photos for a slideshow and larger view.