Monday, September 13, 2004

NE capitol blog.

I heard two things about the state capitol in Nebraska last week, both from people who presumably know it well, and both more or less at odds with the other. Life is rife with petty contradictions like this, mostly irresolvable, but I’ll pass it along just the same.

I flew to Omaha last Wednesday, and the first order of business was to drive to Lincoln, only about 60 smooth-driving miles away, down I-80. Clouds were sparse, the sun high, the air warm, and the roads not especially crowded, at least compared to the traffic muck I regularly drive through in metro Chicago. I got into Lincoln in time to meet one of my magazine’s correspondents –- he covers greater Omaha for us –- for lunch.

Later in the day, I planned to drive to South Sioux City, Nebraska, for a conference the next day. That left a window in my schedule just big enough to see the Nebraska state capitol, which happened to be across the street from our correspondent’s office. After lunch, I entered the massive structure, and lucked into a tour that was just starting.

The tour guide was a petite black woman, about my age, who clearly loved the capitol. She knew it well, too –- some fact or observation or story about the enormous stones used to build it, the epic murals on the walls, the famous Nebraskans bronzed here and there, the ornate ceilings and fixtures, and –- what I marveled at the most –- the intricate mosaics on the floors. She had a smooth voice, almost fit for smooth jazz radio, and I could have listened to her for hours as she breezed from subject to subject with hardly a pause. As it was, I had about 30 minutes.

At one point, she discussed the fact that the two previous capitols had had short lives as buildings. That made the Nebraska legislature of the late 1910s authorize a much sturdier structure. “It was estimated when it was built that this building will last 500 years,” she said with such liquidity, such assured authority that I didn’t wonder about the statement until I was leaving.

About an hour earlier, Bill -- our correspondent –- noted that it was a good thing that the capitol was near the end of a multi-year restoration project, since it had been in bad shape only a few years ago. “For a while, they weren’t sure they’d be able to save it,” he noted. Indeed, work still continues on one side of the structure.

Hm. I don’t think the tour guide was lying, and I think Bill, a veteran newspaperman, had passed along accurate information. On the other hand, perhaps both were exaggerations that produced the effect of contradiction. Maybe it wasn't really about to fall down, and the work being done now is the sort of thing you need to do every century or so. And maybe 500 years was, and is, an optimistic number. How could you test it, short of waiting five centuries? Computer models? They didn’t have those in the 1920s.

Anyway, it’s a long time in human terms. Anything can happen. By ca. 2400, Nebraska could long have been absorbed into the Greater Wisconsin Co-Prosperity Sphere.


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