By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent
Mom always said that nothing good happens fast. If she was right, this new project at the Nebraska State Capitol is going to be a doozy since it is nearly 100 years in the making.
Construction is well underway on the four courtyard fountains, which had been included in original plans for the building but were scrapped by financial concerns when the third Capitol building was constructed. It has taken nearly a decade for some former senators and other Capitol enthusiasts to see a dream come true.
Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley, who says the fountains will be done in time for the 2017 Sesquicentennial activities, likens the task to building a ship in a bottle. The fountains are being built in courtyards that are completely surrounded by building. Dirt has to be removed through the hallways of the building. Construction materials, including yard upon yard of concrete, steel and stone, have to be brought through the building.
Yes, it would have been much easier to build the fountains during construction of the original building. But, money was tight and folks were obviously in a hurry to build the third Capitol and do it right. The first lasted only a few years and had to be torn down because of inferior building materials. The second developed a huge crack in one wall, apparently because of shoddy building practices, and had to be torn down after the current Capitol was built around it.
The history of the three Capitols in Lincoln began at statehood in 1867 with a two-story building with a central cupola, made of native limestone. The second Capitol was started in 1881 and finished in 1888.
In 1915, plans began for the third – and current — Capitol on the same site. The second one was left in place and the new one built around it. Then the old was torn down and the center of the current Capitol stands in its place.
Architect Bertram Goodhue’s design called for placement of a fountain in each of the four courtyards within the building, but the project – as well as a set of murals in the tower — was abandoned during the Great Depression. Talk of the fountains surfaced again after the murals were finally installed in 1996. That left the fountains as the last original design to be completed.
Former Omaha Senators John Nelson and Scott Price were among those who pushed to make the fountain project happen. Nelson called the Capitol a state treasure that belongs to the people. He said “we owe it to the people to assure it’s complete.” The project became the first major one for the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators, a group formed in 1976 that had previously only held reunion banquets. Many other former senators, including association director Vicki McDonald, stepped forward to get the project on track.
The project comes with a price. Lincoln’s Kingery Construction Company won the bid for $2.79 million. A budget bill passed in 2014 authorized the Capitol Commission to use $2.5 million from the state’s rainy day fund to install the fountains, to make improvements to support the operation and maintenance of the fountains, and do associated courtyard landscape restoration.
That money was hard fought. The Legislature had to override a veto from then-Gov. Dave Heineman who used the all-too familiar line that he wanted to use every dollar available for property tax cuts. After all, a guy’s got to get re-elected. The Governor said the courtyards were rarely used. But, another $500,000 was added to the fund in 2015 with a transfer of money already appropriated to the Capitol Commission but unused. Heineman suggested that private donors finance the fountains.
But, the group persisted. Former Lincoln Senator DiAnna Schimek said it’s very important that the people of Nebraska have ownership of the building. They made great sacrifices for the original construction and completing the building as it was designed will be a tribute to those efforts.
Goodhue’s fountains were inspired by the cooling fountains he saw on a trip through Persia. They included dish-like, cast bronze bubblers and designs representative of the many people groups who have inhabited the state. Ripley said Goodhue’s plans also called for colorful, flowering hedges. A return of that landscaping will make the courtyards more attractive and enticing to users.
Hat’s off to all who are making the completion of the original State Capitol design a reality. Even if it took 100 years.