By David L. Bristow, Editor
Our state capitol is one of the nation’s most recognizable, but did you know it’s the third capitol built on that spot, and the fifth to serve as Nebraska’s seat of government?
Nebraska’s first territorial capitol was built in Omaha by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company. It was Omaha’s first brick building and stood on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas.
“The building is a neat and substantial one, but altogether too small for the purpose intended,” said the Nebraska Palladium (Bellevue) after the first legislative session opened in January 1855. The front door opened into a hallway, with the House of Representatives chamber on the left and the governors’ apartment on the right. A winding staircase led upstairs to the Council chamber (equivalent to a Senate) and committee rooms. A real estate agent would call it “cozy.”
In 1858 the legislature moved to a larger, partly finished building on the present site of Omaha Central High School. The new building began falling apart immediately. A year later it had to be repaired to keep a wall from collapsing.
And with no “privy” on the grounds, members of legislature relieved themselves in the dirt-floored basement. In this photo the capitol would have been drafty and chilly, but at least it didn’t stink as much in cold weather.
Omaha newspapers ridiculed the state government’s move to the tiny village of Lincoln. “Nobody will ever go to Lincoln, who does not go to the Legislature, the lunatic asylum, the penitentiary, or some of the State institutions,” said one paper. Lincoln “is destined for isolation and ultimate oblivion,” said another.
Governor David Butler feared that unless a new building was ready to receive the state legislature in January 1869, Omaha would find a way to remain the capital city.
The new capitol was ready in time, but it was a rush job and its inferior stone soon began to crumble.
The fourth capitol was built on the site of the third. It was bigger but not much better. Completed in 1888, it soon settled and cracked. It was in poor shape by the early twentieth century.
By the 1920s Nebraska was planning its fifth capitol in less than seventy years. Here you can see the present capitol rising around its predecessor. This was done to keep the old building open until part of the new one was complete.
You might think the legislature would play it safe and try for a plain but competently-constructed building. Instead they commissioned an unusual, modern design. They spent ten years having it built, paying for it as they went. Our present capitol was completed in 1932—an enduring landmark at last.
(Photo at top of page: building the tower in 1928. History Nebraska RG1234-40-6)
Posted 2/1/2021. This article was first published in the January-February 2020 issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine.
“Nebraska’s First Territorial Capitol,” History Nebraska, https://history.nebraska.gov/publications/nebraskas-first-territorial-capitol
James C. Olson, J. Sterling Morton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942), 81-82. (Regarding the poor condition of second territorial capitol.)
“Previous Capitols,” Nebraska State Capitol, https://capitol.nebraska.gov/building/history/nebraska-capitols/