Lincoln is the capital city of Nebraska and the county seat of Lancaster County. It is Nebraska's second-most populous city and the 73rd-largest in the United States. The city was founded in 1856 as the village of Lancaster and was later renamed Lincoln after President Abraham Lincoln when it became Nebraska's state capital in 1869.
The city of Lincoln is the Capitol of Nebraska.
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The capital of Nebraska is Lincoln.
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What is the Capital of Nebraska?
As someone interested in U.S. geography and state capitals, I've always found Nebraska's capital city intriguing. Being smack dab in the middle of the country, I wondered how Nebraska decided on its capital when transitioning from a territory to an official state. In my research, I uncovered the fascinating history and many changes that ultimately led to the establishment of Lincoln as the capital of Nebraska.
What was the Original Capital of Nebraska?
When Nebraska first became an official territory of the United States in 1854, the city of Omaha was designated as the original capital. Omaha made sense at the time, as it was the largest and most developed city in the Nebraska territory with transportation access via the Missouri River.
From 1854 to 1867, Omaha acted as the territorial capital and center of government for Nebraska. Many important early government buildings were established in Omaha during this period.
However, once Nebraska gained official statehood in 1867, the state government reopened the debate on what city should be the permanent state capital.
Why Did Nebraska Decide to Move the Capital from Omaha?
There were several reasons why legislators wanted to relocate the capital to a city other than Omaha after statehood:
- Central Location – Having the capital along the Missouri River in Omaha meant it was not centrally located for the entire state. Moving it inland could allow equal access.
- Balance of Power – Some politicians wanted to diffuse power away from Omaha by putting the capital in a less established city.
- Space to Grow – Omaha had limited land and space for expansion of government facilities compared to building a new capital.
- Fresh Start – A new capital would represent a fresh beginning for the state outside of the powerful railroad interests entrenched in Omaha.
After heated debate, it was decided through legislation and a public referendum that the capital would move from Omaha to a more central and less developed location.
How Did Lancaster and Then Lincoln Emerge as Top Contenders?
For the new capital location, two cities emerged as prime options – Seward and Lancaster. Seward was a rapidly growing city with rail access. Lancaster, which would later become Lincoln, was a newly established township with agricultural roots but centrally positioned.
Seward lobbied aggressively for the capital designation. But Lancaster eventually won out for several important reasons:
- Lancaster colonizers offered free lots for government buildings as an incentive.
- East-west rail lines were planned through Lancaster, increasing future growth potential.
- Lancaster was nearly equal distance from Missouri and Kansas borders.
- Founders ensured wide thoroughfares and spacious lots were incorporated in Lancaster for expansion.
On July 29th, 1867, Lancaster officially became designated as the new capital city for Nebraska. Shortly thereafter in 1868, Lancaster changed its name to Lincoln to honor President Abraham Lincoln.
Where was the Original Location of Nebraska's Capitol Building?
Once Lincoln secured designation as capital city, leaders moved urgently to construct government offices and a capitol building. Until permanent facilities could be built, the first capitol site was a simple two-story building rented from the Nebraska State Agricultural Society.
This modest rental property served as the temporary home for Nebraska's state government from 1867 to 1868. It provided essential office space but was far from the grandeur normally associated with capitol buildings. The structure was located at 9th and H Street in downtown Lincoln – offering visibility within the fledgling city.
Renting pre-existing space allowed a faster transition while planning commenced on a permanent capitol facility suitable for a rapidly growing state.
How Did Planning and Construction of the Permanent Capitol Unfold?
Planning for a permanent capitol building began quickly but proved challenging, with disagreements on the design and construction process. After multiple failed proposals and votes, the state finally hired architect William H. Willcox in 1869 to design and oversee construction of the new capitol.
Willcox produced a plan for a classically styled building with a central rotunda and dome capped by a statue. The capitol was designed in a ‘T’ shape for future chambers expansion and featured pillars, porticos, and symmetrical wings – modeling after the U.S. Capitol.
With a design completed, the challenges continued regarding contract bidding and material sourcing for construction. After a corruption scandal led to false starts, work finally commenced in 1879 under contractor M.B. Hoxie. Construction of the Willcox-designed capitol was completed in 1888.
What Challenges Did the Capitol Face in Early Years?
Lincoln’s early capitol building overcame major hurdles during its first decades:
- The original wood dome was damaged by a fire caused by paint stripping solvents in 1895. It was subsequently replaced with safer fireproof materials.
- The building suffered cracking, foundation slippage, and subsidence issues that required major reconstruction between 1901-1912 to remedy and prevent collapse.
- Lack of fire sprinklers and outdated electrical systems led to occasional small fires within the facility.
- Space constraints emerged as government expanded faster than expected. Various creative solutions included basement offices and annex additions.
Through diligent maintenance and periodic upgrades, Lincoln fought to preserve the heart of its capitol building despite high demand and heavy use.
At What Point Did Nebraska Plan a New Capitol?
By the 1920s, it was undeniable that Nebraska had outgrown its original capitol building constructed only 40 years prior. Maintenance costs were high, space was severely limited, and the structure struggled to meet modern government needs.
In 1925, the state legislature established the Capitol Commission to oversee planning and construction of a new capitol. However, the Great Depression and World War II delayed significant progress.
In 1955, Capitol Architects chaired by Eliot V. Slates was hired to spearhead the effort. Exploratory excavation occurred in 1958 but only minor foundation work was completed before the project lost momentum again.
It was not until the late 1960s, under the leadership of Governor Norbert Tiemann, that the drive for a new capitol was reenergized and realized.
How was the Current Nebraska State Capitol Designed and Constructed?
Nebraska was determined to construct a capitol positioned to serve the state's needs for the next century and beyond. The 320,000 square foot building was designed in a modernist style with art deco influences.
Noted architects Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates designed the building, led by master architects Lawrie and Heckenroth after Goodhue’s death. Nebraska native Don Schoeck served as associate architect. Schoeck emphasized integrating local elements like native woods, sufficient spaces for public functions, and educational displays within the building.
The Limestone facade was supplied from a single southcentral Nebraska quarry to provide consistency. Modern synthetic materials reduced maintenance. Architectural details symbolized Nebraska’s culture and values. Construction was complete in 1932 with Bertram Goodhue Associates winning an award for best state capital.
How Has the Capitol Evolved Over the Last Century?
Since completion in 1932, Nebraska’s State Capitol building has undergone periodic renovations and upgrades:
- 1960s – West chamber wings added to increase space along with heating, cooling, and lighting upgrades.
- Late 1980s – Major renovation undertaken to address accessibility, asbestos abatement, fire safety systems, and repair deterioration.
- 2008 – Four interior courtyards with skylights enclosed as working chambers. This $100 million project alleviated the most urgent space constraints.
- 2020s – Active plans to construct three new underground parking garages and convert surrounding street parking into green space.
Careful planning has ensured the capitol’s original design integrity remains intact while adapting the interior spaces to serve evolving needs. Preserving the capitol’s functionality and beauty for future generations remains a priority.
The history of Nebraska's state capital illuminates the early growing pains of a young state, along with the foresight to establish an expandable central hub in Lincoln. Since its formation, Lincoln has acted diligently in its role as steward of the state's capitol – overseeing the construction of an original neoclassical building as well as replacing it with a modernist icon.
Constant improvement balances preservation with practicality. Although not Nebraska's first choice, few today could imagine the Cornhusker State without its beloved capital Lincoln anchoring the plains.