Friday, March 8, 2013

Living Art ~ Nebraska's State Capitol

The state capitol building was built between 1922-1934 with funds from a special assessment tax and was completely paid off by the end of construction. The architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue died 2 years into construction which laid the way for the incorporation of Native American symbology (as Goodhue is referenced as saying the incorporation of American Indian symbology would make the building look like a tipi.)
 I grew up in Nebraska and took many field trips to the State Capitol building. The building is quite amazing and you hear several stories and references to it if you live around here. I won't go into the rather colorful nicknames it's been assigned due to the fact that Nebraska is rather flat and the capitol building is tall and upright. I'll leave that to your imagination...

Architect Bertram Goodhue relied heavily on natural lighting, placing windows in every office and large clerestory windows in public spaces. The use of many windows also provided fresh air to be let in to the building. However, in the many interior corridors and stairways, ornate bronze lamps were cast. Reference.
 I will, however, share a short story from personal experience. I was an architecture student at one point in my life. My high school offered a double period Architecture class that I really loved, but it ruined me for college. We took several field trips and used design software to create floor plans, and yes, drew initial designs by hand. In short, I was bored silly by the time I got to my Arch 101 classes at the University.
Hildreth Meière is a renowned mosaicist, who nearly covered the public spaces of the capitol in mosaic and imagery full of symbolism. She created many of the themed mosaics adorning both the floor and vaulted ceilings of the foyer in the Art Deco style. The theme of the foyer is "Life of Man," and the mosaics represent social activities (Family, School, Recreation, Reflection, Beauty, Truth), ideas (Traditions of the Past, Life of Present, Ideas of the Future), nature (Spirit of the Soil, Spirit of Vegetation, Spirit of Animal Life), and society (Law, Labor, Public Spirit, Religion). More...
 On one special field trip, we visited the State Capitol building. It was a treat, because we were given behind the scenes access (per usual on our field trips). We got to make the trek up the rickety stair case to the top of the dome, the part of the dome that is exposed to the elements, that no one gets to see...unless perhaps you are a building janitor. (They probably have a different title these days, but this is my story.)
The six mosaic panels in the foyer were commissioned in 1967 to celebrate Nebraska's Centennial. Pictured here are The United States Survey by Charles Clement (left) and The Coming of the Railroad by F. John Miller.
 My dad grew up in Lincoln when he was in elementary and junior high, so I've heard lots of stories. He and my uncle didn't have babysitters; they entertained themselves. That means they ran around the rafters and closed off balconies of old movie theaters, peed on electric wires from the tops of maintenance building while playing at the park, and of course, visited their grandpa at the Capitol where he worked as a janitor.
The six mosaic panels in the foyer were commissioned in 1967 to celebrate Nebraska's Centennial. Pictured here are The United States Survey by Charles Clement (left) and The Coming of the Railroad by F. John Miller.
 I'd heard these stories, but had never known that my father had once stood in the exact spot that I was now standing - in the closed to the public dome of the State Capitol rising 362 feet in the air. I didn't encounter the ghost of my grandfather, but the graffiti of a young boy, "tagging" himself in place and time..."Ed Strope."
The Vestibule theme is Gifts of Nature to Man on the Plains. The sun takes center stage with three references: the middle of the domed ceiling, the elaborate chandelier (notice the cast bronze arrows) and again in the floor mosaic. Hildreth Meière has surrounded the sun with agricultural products of Nebraska and the inscription: "Behold they come as householders, bringing earth's first fruits, labors with the abundance of its seasons." The four seasons are represented in the corners, and Nebraska's nativen fauna are referenced in the arches. More...
 I was surprised to say the least, as I had not heard any of dad's stories about the capitol at that point in my life. I knew that my great grandfather had worked in the building, but that was it. Imagine my father's amusement when I mentioned that I had witnessed a bit of his history!
The Coming of the Railroad by F. John Miller
 Changing the subject entirely...I have always loved visiting the State Capitol. It's an amazing building with outstanding views of the city. It's the tallest building in the city of Lincoln, by law (so I've heard). But, in addition to the architecture, there are just so many details that make each trip and adventure. The mosaics of Hildreth Meière are stunning and too numerous to take in every detail in only one visit. Symbolism surrounds you in every public space, reminding you of where you are, and the importance of public art is not to be ignored...
The Coming of the Railroad by F. John Miller
 Here's a fantastic article about Hildreth Meière spotlighting an exhibit, “Walls Speak”, which ran at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts in St. Bonaventure, NY. There's also a fantastic video at the end of the article showing the exhibit.
Read and see more of Hildreth Meière's mosaics: Slide Show: New Exhibit Brings Mosaic of Hildreth Meière's Life Out of Obscurity

 Take an online tour of the State Capitol looking into the historic rooms of the building.
The door to the East chamber is filled with Native American symbology. The tree of life int he middle is made of corn, an important food source and the main crop. The Thunderbird represents rain and life. An Indian man is standing on an otter (medicine), and an Indian woman is standing on a turtle (fertility).
Hildreth Meiere's mosaics on the foyer floor represent the Earth, the Spirit of the Soil,
the Spirit of Vegetation, and the Spirit of Animal Life.

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