LINCOLN — The Nebraska State Capitol is filled with so many pieces of artwork and so much historical symbolism, it's easy to miss some things.
Like the buffaloes sculptor Lee Lawrie carved in stone that guard the north entrances, the dinosaurs laid in tile by mosaic artist Hildreth Meiere in the rotunda floor and Elizabeth Dolan's beautiful “Spirit of the Prairie” mural overlooking the rarely visited State Law Library.
But some folks miss what's not there — because the Capitol, one of the nation's 2,500 national historic landmarks, has never been completed.
And there has never been a formal dedication of architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue's structure, on which work came to a halt in 1932 during the darkest months of the Great Depression.
A group of former state senators now hopes to resolve both of those omissions.
They have launched a renewed effort to raise the $2.5 million necessary to install bronze fountains in the four open-air courtyards at the Capitol, the last unfinished design aspect of the building.
The group hopes to install the fountains in stages over the next three years, completing them by 2017, the 150th anniversary of the state's founding. The new fountains and a dedication could be centerpieces of a sesquicentennial celebration being planned.
“It's a wonderful, wonderful building,” said former State Sen. Bob Wickersham, who now lives in Lincoln. “It's worthy of finishing.”
The push is the first major project ever for the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators. That group was formed in 1976, but until now it had never taken on anything more ambitious than planning an annual reunion and attending funerals of former colleagues.
Former Sen. Vicki McDonald, who also lives in Lincoln, said former senators all loved and admired the State Capitol, which prompted them to take up the cause.
“During the '30s it was difficult to spend the money,” she said. “Now is the time.”
But there's a catch in this Capitol completion caper: The former senators want state taxpayers to pick up the multimillion-dollar tab — a move that Gov. Dave Heineman opposes.
Then-State Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue launched a campaign 4½ years ago to raise private funds for the fountains. But the fund drive fizzled, bringing in less than $4,000.
When he resigned this fall because of family reasons, the campaign was at a standstill.
In stepped the former state senators.
Wickersham, who represented northwest Nebraska's 49th District, made some phone calls. He found support from McDonald, who is now directing the former lawmakers group, and former Lincoln Sen. DiAnna Schimek, who had previously sought state funding for the fountains.
McDonald, who served central Nebraska's 41st District from 2001 to 2009, said she was looking for a “worthwhile project” for the group, which is permitted under its bylaws.
“We really have a lot of expertise and knowledge,” she said. “I thought we could do more than meet once a year and say 'Hi' and 'Bye.' ”
The nine-member State Capitol Commission, at its last meeting, was told of the former senators' proposal.
McDonald, Wickersham and Schimek said it is appropriate for state taxpayers to finance the completion of the Capitol. They said it would be unseemly and inappropriate to erect plaques thanking private donors in the public building. And, they said, state funds built the Capitol.
“It's very important that the people of Nebraska have ownership of the building,” Schimek said. “It's the people's Capitol, and they made great sacrifices to build it in the first place.”
Heineman, who is chairman of the Capitol Commission, was not swayed. He feels that private donors, not taxpayers, should finance the fountains, said spokeswoman Sue Roush.
Others commission members were more open to using state funds.
Bryce Neidig, a former head of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said he's OK with public or private financing of the project. Either way, he said, it would still be the “people's Capitol.”
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York, who serves on the commission, said he'd like to see the Capitol finished.
“Generally speaking, it is the obligation of the state to do this,” Adams said. “Though we appreciate any help we can get from private people.”
Would former state senators have an advantage in persuading current lawmakers to provide $2.5 million in financing?
McDonald said she doesn't think so. If it's worthwhile, it will be funded, she said.
The fountains were inspired by architect Goodhue's trip through Persia (now Iran) in the 1920s.
There he saw cooling fountains in many outdoor courtyards. So he included dishlike, cast-bronze bubblers to sit in the middle of the four outdoor courtyards that circle the Capitol's tower.
Schimek said she obtained preliminary approval to fund the fountains in the mid-2000s, but a last-minute amendment eliminated the funds. The recession and tight budgets have doomed public money for the project since.
Besides an occasional outdoor wedding, the courtyards are barely used. Bob Ripley, the Capitol administrator, said the courtyards were designed to have colorful, flowering hedges, but the ornamental landscaping was removed decades ago.
The State Capitol was built in stages between 1922 and 1932, but there is no record of a formal dedication.
While the public paid to build the Capitol, some private funds have been used since then.
The bronze busts of Nebraska Hall of Fame inductees are privately funded, for example. The restoration of the Wherry Lounge, a retreat for state senators during legislative sessions, was financed by the family of former U.S. Sen. Kenneth Wherry, Ripley said.
But public funds have been used to maintain the Capitol and pay for other projects, such as installing 20 murals, between 1953 and 1996. A $57.4 million renovation of the exterior was completed in 2011, paid for with tax funds.
Wickersham said his memories of the State Capitol go back to his high school days, when he took a rickety elevator ride up to the 14th floor.
The Capitol, with its symbolic and historic artwork, tells the story of Nebraska better than any textbook, he said. It deserves, he said, to be completed with the same kinds of funds that built it: taxpayer funds.
“The idea that you should go with hat in hand to finish the Capitol doesn't appeal to me,” he said. “It is the State Capitol.”