Into The Great Wide Open: Touring The American West (Part VII)…
Lincoln, Nebraska is bigger than I thought. With almost 300,000 people, one drives through expansive suburban areas before arriving downtown. This I discovered the next morning as I headed towards its most prominent building and one of the most amazing exemplars of Art Deco architecture ever built, namely the Nebraska State Capitol.
I was told that I couldn’t miss this grand edifice, but I did. Heading north on South 10th Street a few blocks to the west of it, I ended up plunk in the middle of the University of Nebraska’s campus. I knew something was amiss as I turned around and headed back south, but this time the track was correct. Suddenly this majestic 400-foot tower with the “Sower” on top appeared. There it stood in full glory as if Ayn Rand herself plucked it out of The Fountainhead and placed it standing there.
This bold design was a product of an architect competition formulated by famed architect Thomas Rogers Kimball (1862-1934) on behalf of the Nebraska Capitol Commission. Its task was to erect a new state capitol building in place of the existing one. The eventual winner, the firm of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, provided for a unique way to construct it. It would be built in four phases from 1922 to 1932 allowing Nebraskan taxpayers to pay for it as it was constructed. With a one million-dollar budget for each of the ten years, it came in under budget at $9.8 million. One can only imagine what it would cost today to replicate such an architectural marvel.
Walking the halls, one is transported into an ethos of solemnity and earnestness. The grand hall gives an impression of a neo-gothic cathedral. Alcoves feature busts of prominent personas of Nebraskan history. The solid mahogany doors to the former east chamber (in 1937 the Nebraska Legislature became a unicameral system instead of a bicameral one), known as the Warner Legislative Chamber, provide color to the otherwise somber tones of the surroundings. Each weighs 750 lbs and both depict carvings of Nebraska’s first inhabitants, the Plains Indians, done by local artisan Keats Lorenz.
Outside, one encounters a statue of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) in deep thought as one can only imagine Lincoln as doing. It left me staring in wonder of this incredible American President and all that he had accomplished before an assassin’s bullet cut him down. In the same vein, the town bearing his name became a symbol of what pioneers on the great plains set out to accomplish.
My arrival that afternoon in Omaha on the bank of North America’s longest river, the Missouri, left me longing for more. Known as The Big O by the locals, Omaha is Nebraska’s biggest city. It’s home to the Oracle of Omaha, otherwise known by the name of Warren Buffet.
Entering Omaha from the southwest on Interstate 80, one witnesses the affluence of the surrounding areas. Much to my surprise, I saw shiny new buildings among green trees and well-groomed office parks. I was expecting to see slaughterhouses instead. Omaha was booming. One could clearly feel this.
Downtown was no different. The historic district close to the river and The Heartlands of America Park, with its water fountain and man-made lake, could be taken for a Geneva of sorts. The many outdoor cafes and restaurants in the area gave it an idyllic feeling, yet a contemporary glow. Not too far were the downtown skyscrapers and at the corner of Capitol Avenue and North 14th Street was an amazing array of statues. They depicted a replica of a pioneer convoy trekking across the prairies.
Back in that great hall of the Nebraska state capitol, there’s a bust of American author Willa Cather (1873-1947). Beneath is a plaque with words from her 1913 novel O Pioneers!: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”
Upon seeing that convoy of bronze statues in downtown Omaha, those words came to life. With each passing mile, with each trek, the thought of those words rang louder than the mile before. They gave meaning to the many things witnessed on this tour of the American West. They provided context where there was none before. The road was long, but the road had depth. The American West would forever etch into one’s memory.
It was time to enjoy one final night west of the Missouri River…
Note: Photos are by the author.
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