Nebraska State Capitol

Lincoln, NE

This project is part of the comprehensive restoration of the Nebraska State Capitol. The effort spans decades with restoration of the building’s four courtyards having to wait until near the project’s conclusion. Visitors may access the courtyards from first floor hallways or overlook the two north courtyards on exterior balconies accessed from the second floor Foyer.

Restoration within the courtyards included design and construction of four fountains envisioned but not built during the Capitol’s construction. Stone surfaced walkways were removed and reset, and drainage issues addressed. Replanting of the courtyard involved replicating the original Ernst Herminghaus design with minor modifications to decrease landscape maintenance and improve plant health.

Each courtyard’s central lawn panels, flower beds and hedges were installed in summer of 2020. Planting of each courtyard’s exterior shrub beds will occur as restoration of windows in each courtyard is completed. The final plantings are anticipated to occur in 2023.

Nebraska Capitol Commission is the client for this project.
Big Muddy is the landscape architect for the project.
Campbell’s Nursery is providing and installing the plants.
BVH Architects are the Historic Preservation architects for the Capitol.

The courtyards were intended to be a place of refuge and reflection from the harsh Nebraska prairie. The courtyards, like the Capitol’s interior were planned to exhibit the lush and colorful niche landscape’s that exist in Nebraska’s river valleys, streams, and canyons. The courtyards combined colorful plantings surrounding a fountain at each courtyard’s center. Goodhue’s associates prepared two sketches of his vision prior to his untimely death in 1924.

Ernest Herminghaus, Nebraska’s first academically trained landscape architect was entrusted to complete Goodhue’s design concept. Herminghaus created a plant palette that included a broad range of small trees and shrub species for inclusion in his courtyard designs. Similarly, he followed Goodhue’s vision of arranging trees in the lawn areas surrounding the Capitol to accentuate corner views of the two-story base and tower building. Like many early 20th century landscape architects, Herminghaus over-planted the courtyard shrub beds creating management issues with his over-wise innovative design.

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I am frankly dazzled with the results.  To think that no one has seen these courtyard landscapes in this way in 86 years, much less that even Herminghaus himself never had the pleasure of seeing the fountains within his design.  Once these gardens are in place and have a couple years of growth on them even…they will be incredible to any one who comes in the building and turns the corner to see them from second floor as a total surprise.  Frankly, they will give Herminghaus (Big Muddy & Campbells), the Capitol and landscape architecture in general, the respect they deserve.  The courtyards are the murals and mosaics of the Capitol landscape and I lived to see them realized as well.”

– Robert C. Ripley, FAIA. Capitol Administrator
Office of the Nebraska Capitol Commission



America’s Dust Bowl period, along with the nation’s Great Depression, resulted in the courtyard fountains not being constructed and later neglect of the courtyard plantings. No records document the demise of the original plantings. Well-intentioned plantings of Japanese Yews and small ornamental trees replaced any remnants of the original plantings in the 1970s. These replacement plantings slower declined and were removed piecemeal before Big Muddy was commissioned to analyze archival documents from the Capitol’s construction and determine a course of action to implement unrealized (or unbuilt) features of the original design and restore lost elements which were part of the original Goodhue design.

Big Muddy’s archival record analysis identified two elements that were not realized as part of the original project construction.  These included construction of a low perimeter site wall to create a plinth upon which the Capitol building would be sit, and the four courtyard fountains to provide focal points within each courtyard through the sight and sound of moving water.

In 2014, funds to construct the courtyard fountains were approved by the Nebraska Unicameral as part of the State’s 150 anniversary. Big Muddy was a critical member of the design team that designed the courtyard fountains. Big Muddy proposed placing the mechanical system pumps and control systems within unused areas in the Capitol’s basement rather than in construct a mechanical pit underneath each fountain. The basement location placed the mechanical equipment within year-round conditioned space. These locations also eliminated the worker safety issues of entering and working within confined spaces. During the design process, Big Muddy adjusted grades on each courtyard’s walks to place all four fountains are the same elevation. This simplified construction of service piping and pump systems.

After the courtyard fountains were complete, Big Muddy assisted the Nebraska Capitol Commission and a group of former state senators in raising money to fund restoring the courtyard gardens. Big Muddy’s design corrects several deficiencies in the original design. Work on restoring the gardens began in 2021. Underdrains were installed under all lawn and planting beds to correct decades-old drainage issues. New privet hedges, rose plantings, annual flower beds, and lawn panels were installed in each courtyard’s center. Perimeter shrub plantings were completed in the Southwest Courtyard. The perimeter plantings in the other three courtyards will be completed as a three-year window restoration project is completed. The number of shrubs and their spacing was carefully considered during the design process. The total number of shrubs in the design was reduced to provide courtyard plantings which are sustainable as they grow and mature.

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