Last fall, officials from across the state gathered to celebrate the long-awaited installation of four courtyard fountains in the interior of the Nebraska State Capitol. It had been nearly 86 years since the Capitol was built, and with the fountains finally in place, the monumental building was one step closer to completion. But there is something missing … the landscaping inside the courtyards.
“The courtyard gardens are the missing pieces of the original Capitol design. Now that the fountains are completed, restoring the gardens will complete our site,” said Robert Ripley, Nebraska Capitol administrator.
Bob Wickersham, Vickie McDonald, DiAnna Schimek and several other former state senators led the charge to obtain $3.1 million in state funding for the fountains. They are now committed to finishing the vision for the Capitol by raising money to restore the courtyard landscaping.
“It is doubtful that it will be the state’s priority to finish this project any time soon, so we are determined to find private donors who will help us with this missing piece in order that the vision for our Capitol will be complete,” said Schimek, who served District 27 from 1989-2009 and is chair of the campaign team.
Campaign leaders include members of the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators (NAFSL) who are passionately committed to raising the funds for the project. Schimek is joined by Tom Carlson, president of the NAFSL, Jim Jensen, Joel Johnson, McDonald, Scott Moore, John Nelson, Sandy Scofield and Wickersham.
“After spending a considerable amount to install the fountains, it seems unthinkable not to do the landscaping. Nebraskans aren’t quitters. They finish what they start – even if it takes 80-plus years,” said former State Senator Scofield.
The $1.4 million campaign will provide funds to install an irrigation and drainage system and plantings, and create an endowment for ongoing care and maintenance. The $1 million endowment will ensure the gardens will remain beautiful forever and not be abandoned as they were during the 1960s due to a lack of resources. Legislation to create an endowment fund specifically for the courtyards will be introduced in the 2019 session.
The office of Capitol Architect Bertram Goodhue selected Nebraska native Ernst H. Herminghaus to create the landscape plan for the four courtyards. His education and training in landscape architecture, and his understanding of Nebraska’s geography, climate and plant material, qualified him to fulfill Goodhue’s vision of a landscape to enhance and complement the building.
Herminghaus created the landscape design for the Capitol courtyards to reflect the variety of color and pattern of the building’s interior. Herminghaus’ actual drawings for each of the four courtyards have been analyzed by Big Muddy Workshop and Campbell’s Nurseries, and plant selections were modified only slightly to account for current climate and improved species.
Although similar in overall plant layout and border design, the flower beds in each courtyard are distinctly different in color palette, with a series of taller shrubs and small trees against the building, and low-growing hedges along the interior sidewalks. Each courtyard will have its own unique mix of colorful plants that include tulips, petunias, roses, lilacs and hydrangeas.
A National Historic Landmark
The Herminghaus-designed Capitol landscape, which includes the courtyards and the exterior landscape, is a part of the Nebraska State Capitol’s official designation as a National Historic Landmark.
“Of the buildings nationally designated as National Historic Landmarks, it is rare to find both the building and its landscape so designated,” Ripley said. He is not aware of any other State Capitol that has interior courtyards with fountains and landscaping.
Restoring the landscaping is personally important to former Senator Nelson, who filed LB 797 in 2014 and, with the hard work of the former state senators, succeeded in persuading the Legislature to appropriate the funds to complete the courtyard fountains.
“The fountains are in place, but until the courtyard landscaping is implemented according to Goodhue's design, the Capitol is not complete and our efforts have not come to full fruition,” said Nelson, who served District 6 from 2007-2014 and as lieutenant governor in 2014. “We hope that Nebraska's generous citizens will step up to contribute toward the interior landscaping and thereby fully complete our National Historical Landmark.”
Celebrating Nebraska Statehood is serving as the 501(c)(3). The nonprofit was established in 2016 by First Lady Susanne Shore.
The senators hope to have $1.4 million in commitments by June 2019. Once funding becomes available, construction of the courtyard gardens will occur over a six-year period due to HVAC construction in the Capitol that requires scaffolding along the perimeters of the courtyards.
Once completed, Ripley and others expect the number of visitors to the Capitol to increase. Nearly 100,000 visitors from all over the world, including 20,000 school children, visit the Capitol every year. It is one of the top tourism attractions in the state, and the new courtyards will certainly boost its appeal, he said.
“Finishing the Capitol courtyard gardens will complete the vision for the Capitol,” said Schimek. “The inner courtyards will be an explosion of color and will provide a setting for quiet contemplation, as well as a capstone for the tours.
“Architects Goodhue and Herminghaus would be pleased, as would those Depression-era legislators who had the foresight and dedication to fund such an outstanding Capitol,” she added. “We hope all Nebraskans see this as an opportunity to help put the finishing touches on our beautiful National Landmark Capitol.”
For more information about this project, visit: NE150.org/Courtyards or call Schimek at 402-423-0262.