Unused gallery on fifth floor of Nebraska Capitol eyed as a visitors center and museum

Advocates say it would provide spectacular views and educational displays on historic Capitol, state government

By: - March 18, 2023 5:45 am
State Capitol

The now-unused fifth floor of the Nebraska State Capitol would become a gallery of education about state government, as well as a scenic lookout, under a bill proposed in the State Legislature. (Courtesy of State Sen. Robert Clements)

LINCOLN — High inside the Rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol is an unused gallery where you can get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful artwork in the dome and mural-lined hallways of the building.

Current and former state senators joined Thursday in touting a $3.9 million project to turn the currently vacant, fifth-floor space into a visitors center, complete with displays about state government and the historic Capitol.

Popular spot

This could become one of the most popular viewing locations in the building, and a place of learning,” said former State Sen. Dave Pankonin of Louisville.

There’s some dramatic views from the fifth floor gallery at the State Capitol (courtesy State Sen. Robert Clements)

He joined with current Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood in urging passage of Legislative Bill 812, proposed by Clements, which would devote $3.9 million of the state’s abundant cash reserves to renovate the space as part of the current renovations underway in the 91-year-old Capitol.

In original plans

The fifth-floor space was originally intended to be a place for public visitors by the Capitol’s architect, Bertram Goodhue, but has been unused in nearly four decades.

Clements, who chairs the Legislature’s committee that crafts the state budget, the Appropriations Committee, said an organization of former state legislators, which included Pankonin, had approached him with the idea of renovating the unused gallery.

In his original plans for the Capitol, Goodhue envisioned the fifth-floor gallery as a place where the public could get a better view of the artwork in the building — artwork that explains the history of the state and democratic government.

State Sen. Robert Clements
State Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Clements, who is a history buff, said there’s no place in the State Capitol that explains the background of the unique skyscraper design of the building — which is a designated National Historic Landmark — or the three branches of state government: legislative, executive and judiciary.

‘Ample space’

“It’s something that we all talk to our fourth graders about,” the senator said, referring to the thousands of school children who visit the Capitol each year.

“There’s ample space,” Clements added, on the fifth floor.

The area was used periodically in the past as state offices, but not since at least 1986.

Off-limits to the public now

It has been off-limits to the public because of safety concerns — there is no railing between the marble columns that ring the Rotunda. Non-reflective glass partitions would be placed between the columns as part of a renovation plan.

State Capitol
The columns seen high in the Capitol Rotunda  mark the now-unused fifth floor of the State Capitol. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Dan Worth and Mark Bacon of BVH Architecture told members of the Appropriations Committee that the space needs a lot of work. The wall paint is cracking and peeling,  lead paint must be removed, windows require repair and the floor is uneven. A gently sloping floor would be required to make it handicapped accessible.

Under a plan provided by the firm, fire suppression and security systems also would be installed, as well as modern heating and air conditioning systems, which are currently the focus of a long-running renovation project at the State Capitol.

Sara Kay of the Nebraska chapter of the American Institute of Architects said the U.S. Capitol has a similar visitors center as part of its Rotunda.

“We would be absolutely thrilled to see this gallery plan happen,” Kay said.

Done as part of current restoration work

Clements said money could be saved by having the fifth floor renovated as part of the Capitol restoration and heating/air conditioning update project now underway.

Nebraska State Capitol
The Nebraska State Capitol  (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The Appropriations Committee took no action on LB 812 after the public hearing Thursday, but the committee is a week away from starting to craft a state budget for the next two fiscal years.

Clements said he hopes to include some funding for the fifth floor work, in hopes that private funds might be raised to contribute to the project. Funds would not be needed until 2025, he said.

Trust fund for State Capitol

Coincidently on Thursday, the Appropriations Committee heard a proposal, inspired by the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators, to create a trust fund for “preservation, restoration, and enhancement of the courtyards of the Capitol.”

The retired lawmakers raised $1.4 million toward the landscaping of the four courtyards at the State Capitol after decorative fountains were installed.

Former State Sen. Curt Broom said that about $900,000 of those funds remain and that parking them in a state investment fund would reduce fees and ensure that the maximum amount of the donations would be used to help the State Capitol.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.