LINCOLN — Much of Greg Harm's life has revolved around the Nebraska State Capitol.
He grew up only a couple of miles south of the historic, architectural wonder, and he worked two stints as a Capitol intern while in college.
His mother worked there at a Depression-era office that distributed surplus food to schools.
His father, on a dare or a bet, once drove a Model T Ford up and down the steep, stone steps of the north entrance.
But it wasn't until a visit to New York City in 2000 that Harm's fascination with the unique, skyscraper Capitol and the artwork that covers its walls and ceilings became an obsession.
There, at Rockefeller Center, he was drawn to the stunning art deco sculpture “Atlas” and a bas-relief carving, “Wisdom.”
The famous works were unsigned. But a tour guide announced the artist: Lee Lawrie.
Lawrie, Harm knew, was the architectural sculptor who created dozens of works throughout the Nebraska Capitol, including the agrarian bronze that sits atop its dome, which to many is the state's symbol: the Sower.
How, Harm wondered, could such a talented artist have been drawn to the Plains of Nebraska?
And why wasn't Lawrie, who did hundreds of sculptures in some of the nation's finest structures, more widely known?
His fascination resulted in his book, “Lee Lawrie's Prairie Deco: History in Stone at the Nebraska State Capitol.”
It comes at an opportune time: This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1934, completion of the dozens of Lawrie sculptures that adorn the Capitol. Sunday was proclaimed Lee Lawrie Day in Nebraska.
Harm's book details the works of a humble Prussian immigrant whose life was dedicated to telling stories with stone and metal and to adding meaning to churches, libraries and other structures designed by the renowned architect Bertram Goodhue, with whom he collaborated for almost three decades.
Lawrie, Harm said, was an incredibly shy person who described his role as merely “a fiddler in the orchestra,” who was no more important than the plumbers and other workers.
“Everyone knows the ‘Atlas,' but nobody knows Lee Lawrie,” said Harm, now of Austin, Texas. “He's a forgotten, machine-age Michelangelo.”
The purpose of the book is twofold.
First, Harm said, it is to make people aware of the genius of Lawrie, whose work is also featured at hundreds of other buildings, including the Los Angeles Public Library; the National Cathedral and National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.; the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minn.; and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
The book, the author said, also can help Nebraskans realize what a treasure of artwork they have on display at the Capitol.
While New York, Paris, Los Angeles and Miami are typically viewed as the centers for art deco works produced in the 1920s and 1930s, the Nebraska Capitol is covered with them, Harm said.
“It's like an Easter egg hunt. It's kind of like it's invisible but in plain sight. They're all over the place,” he said. “I hope the book brings people from across America who love art deco.”
Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley said Nebraska's Capitol was revolutionary in more than one way. Its high-rise tower design strayed radically from the typical architecture of state capitols, which mimics the squat, dome shape of the U.S. Capitol.
In addition, Ripley said, it also was the first building of its kind to have a thoroughly integrated system of thematic art throughout the building, from the rotunda's roof to the door knobs.
While many important buildings in the 1920s included some sculptures and ornamental elements, such features are found throughout the Nebraska Capitol.
There's the “Spirit of the Pioneers” bas-relief above the north doors; the small bronze Indian hunters, antelope and buffalo on the doors themselves; the carvings of “lawgivers” such as Moses, Solomon and Julius Caesar at the south entrance and courtyards; sculptures of the “nobles of civilization” such as Socrates, Abraham Lincoln and Sir Isaac Newton elsewhere; and the Sower atop the dome.
Lawrie's view was that sculpture should immediately tell a story — stories such as “The Declaration of Independence” and “Moses Bringing the Law from Sinai,” two Lawrie works at the south entrance.
Even tiny ornaments in the Capitol tell stories — a ballot urn and its role in democracy, an anvil representing early Nebraska, a lamp illuminating the law.
“It just blows people away,” Ripley said.
Ironically, Lawrie almost didn't work on the Capitol.
The State Capitol Commission, in 1920, selected Goodhue's design for the building. Goodhue likely had been drawn to the competition, Ripley said, because of the stellar national reputation of Thomas Kimball, the Omaha architect who drew up the rules.
After picking Goodhue, the commission set out to seek bids from artists to do the sculptures.
Goodhue was infuriated, according to Harm and Ripley.
“The idea of putting this on a competitive basis, precisely as you do plumbing, is Preposterous,” wrote the incensed architect.
Lawrie and Goodhue had been working together for more than two decades by then, Goodhue pointed out.
The commission eventually relented, and Goodhue and Lawrie set out to carry out the vision of the Nebraska Capitol, which was meant not only to be a memorial for World War I, but also a way to recognize the significance of history and agriculture to the state and to show the development of democracy and the law.
Hartley Burr Alexander, a local professor of philosophy, developed the themes for the structure. Lawrie created the sculptures at a workshop in Harlem. Plaster casts of his works were shipped by rail to Lincoln, where carvers executed them.
Lawrie didn't visit Lincoln until 1924, two years after construction of the Capitol had begun and three months after his longtime partner Goodhue died.
Tears came to the artist's eyes, Harm wrote, as Lawrie described the progress being made.
Carving on the building continued for another decade. And while art deco — and architectural sculpture — faded in popularity after World War II, Lawrie was active until his death in 1963.
He never achieved great fame outside architectural circles, Harm said, because of his shyness and his feeling that an artist should stand behind his work, not in front of it. Lawrie's work never was featured at an art show or museum because he only did works associated with buildings.
As the artist once said, the great sculptures of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and even the Middle Ages were all on buildings, and “the art museum is a recent invention.”
How involved Lawrie was in the overall design of the State Capitol is a matter of conjecture, according to Harm.
Goodhue once returned an award he received for the structure because it didn't include Lawrie's name, Harm said. And Lawrie, in a letter to his daughter shortly before his death, intimated he gave Goodhue hints about the Capitol design.
Harm said he has only suggestions of a greater involvement by Lawrie.
But the artist's genius and greatest legacy, however, are clear.
“I really hope this book educates people — people from the coasts who don't know this building exists,” Harm said. “There isn't anything exactly like it anywhere else in the world.”
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