Art conservator Anne Rosenthal works on a mural by Kenneth Evett titled "Labors of the Hand" in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on June 2, 2006, as part of a multi-year renovation project. 

Major renovation work is bringing needed refurbishment to the Nebraska State Capitol. A long-planned $106 million project is revamping the Capitol’s heating and cooling systems, and former state senators have made encouraging fundraising progress for a well-designed landscaping effort.

It’s an appropriate occasion, then, to note the admirable care and attention that went into design of the Capitol, constructed between 1922 and 1932. Architect Bertram Goodhue of Philadelphia, University of Nebraska Professor Hartley Burr Alexander and the many consultants and artisans developed design concepts that celebrate Nebraska’s achievements and important dimensions of societal progress. Alexander, a poet and head of NU’s philosophy department, developed two themes for the building. Its exterior would feature legal progress over the millennia and the development of democratic government. The interior would celebrate “human habitation on the plains of Nebraska and the relationship of civilization to the natural environment.”

The resulting architectural and decorative vision is impressive, addressing multiple topics. Many of the designs honor Native Americans, for example. The east legislative chamber, used for the State Senate until the Legislature switched to a single-chamber format in 1937, features extensive motifs saluting native tribes. An exterior design shows the 16th-century Spanish reformer Bartolomé de las Casas championing the cause of Native Americans in the face of colonial abuses. The Capitol’s main portal depicts a buffalo, central to the culture of Plains tribes, and lists 10 tribes including the Omaha, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe and Sioux.

Other designs focus strongly on Nebraska’s connections to the natural world. The marble floor mosaic in the center of the Capitol’s Rotunda celebrates the theme of “Earth as the Life-giver.”

Many designs fittingly connect the state’s political and legal systems to enduring traditions and important values. The building’s best-known inscription is “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen” — a call for active citizenship and governmental accountability.

Another inscription cites an observation from the Greek philosopher Plato that remains as relevant in the 21st century as it was when he cited it more than 2,000 years ago: “Laws and constitutions spring from the moral dispositions of the members of the state.”

A sculptured image shows the poet John Milton speaking to the British Parliament in defense of free speech. Other images depict important advancements over the course of millennia — including the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence — to promote order and justice in society.

Over the decades, the state has followed up with appropriate additional designs. Work began in the 1950s to complete the mural program. And it’s certainly worth an elevator trip to the Capitol’s 14th floor to see the Memorial Chamber featuring eight murals by Nebraska artist Stephen Roberts representing “heroic enterprises associated with Nebraska history,” with four military themes and four civilian ones.

The late State Sen. Lowen Kruse of Omaha was an enthusiastic student of the State Capitol and its construction. In a 2009 Midlands Voices essay, he offered astute observations about the building’s creation:

» Thomas Kimball was key to bringing in innovative architectural proposals. Many state capitol buildings feature miniature versions of the U.S. Capitol, with its famous dome. Because Kimball, a nationally respected Omaha architect, managed the bidding for the Nebraska project, eminent architects choose to participate and propose distinctive approaches, such as Goodhue’s soaring tower.

» The timing was fortuitous. Had the state attempted such construction a bit earlier, the technology to build the tower wouldn’t have been available. The project used newly designed steel. Had the construction been a few decades later, there wouldn’t have been enough stone craftsmen for the work.

» The Sower has an ancient agricultural connection. The figure’s headband is Egyptian, to note agriculture’s global reach and ancient roots.

Nebraskans are truly fortunate to have a State Capitol building with such remarkable richness of design and depth of moral vision.

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