Clock ticking on birthplace of Nebraska's Capitol
Clock ticking on birthplace of Nebraska's Capitol
By PETER SALTER, Lincoln Journal Star, 9/20/2014, original
Beneath the vaulted ceiling of his penthouse, surrounded by a sweep of quarter-sawn oak, the architect was drawing up something grand.
The building that would soar 400 feet over Nebraska, the building that would become Bertram Goodhue’s signature.
“This is his seminal work,” said Bob Ripley, administrator of the Nebraska State Capitol. “It will be the thing that will be his legacy in architecture for a very long time. This one is the big one.”
And all of it -- every corner, every carving, every pillar and tile and archway and hall -- was conceived in Goodhue’s offices, 14 floors above Manhattan, New York.
He designed those offices, too. In 1911, Goodhue convinced the owner of a budding building at 2 West 47th Street to let him plan and put his architectural firm on top of the high-rise, Ripley said.
But now, after standing for more than a century, that building is likely coming down, taking with it the birthplace of Nebraska’s iconic Capitol. And that has given an unlikely collection of Goodhue devotees -- an author in Texas, a music promoter in Midtown, a state employee in Nebraska and a former cover artist for The New Yorker -- a sense of urgency. And loss.
Ripley, the man who cares for the Capitol, made a pilgrimage to its designer’s former headquarters 11 years ago.
He can still walk you through it:
Step off the elevator into a tiled lobby, sun pouring through skylights. Then into the grand reception area -- a great hall of a room -- with a barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with floral designs, oak paneling, a Gothic and leaded bay window, a cavernous fireplace with ornate mantelpieces that reached all the way up the wall.
This was where the architect met, and impressed, his clients.
“It was just a fabulous place,” Ripley said. “The room was really very impressive.”
It connected to an outdoor terrace, and to Goodhue’s personal office, another oak-wrapped formality. Beyond those, the drafting and drawing rooms.
Goodhue drew and drafted here for a dozen years, building a stone-solid reputation while designing dozens of churches and homes and public buildings, including the Los Angeles Central Library and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.
He was hands-on, spending as much time standing over a drawing table as he did sitting in his office, Ripley said.
“He was notorious for having two or three lit cigarettes at various drafting tables around the room.”
But he wasn’t all work. His office had a reputation for frivolity, and its Twelfth Night holiday programs and parties were elaborate, and legendary.
“I believe it makes for happiness that men's work should be interesting and not always mere work, like that of the men ruled by an efficiency fanatic, therefore, it’s perfectly well understood that anybody can look at books, smoke, talk, and sing -- especially the latter. Often, going into the drafting room, I find myself in a perfect nest of singing birds,” Goodhue told the journal Pencil Points in 1922.
He died two years later, just before his 55th birthday. But he left enough work for his associates to continue to operate the office -- and oversee ongoing projects, including the Nebraska Capitol -- until about 1940.
The penthouse’s next 35 years are a mystery. Some of the space was walled off and divided, but Goodhue’s office and reception room were largely intact when R.O. Blechman first stepped off the elevator in the mid-1970s.
Blechman is an animator and illustrator. He made a 1967 Alka-Seltzer commercial showing a man, with Gene Wilder’s voice, arguing with his stomach. He signed his name to 14 New Yorker covers.
At the time, he was searching for office space.
And what he saw on the 14th floor was so impractical. But so magnificent.
The leasing agent asked if he wanted it painted, maybe have the ceiling lowered.
“And I said, ‘No, it’s great.’”
He knew nothing of his future office’s history. And at first, he knew nothing of Bertram Goodhue. But he would become a student of the architect, researching his work and visiting his buildings and marveling at the design details Goodhue had left in the walls and ceilings that now surrounded him.
Initially, Blechman was going to sublet some of the space. But instead, he started collecting it, buying up other leases until he controlled almost the entire top floor. He felt a responsibility to preserve and protect Goodhue’s former offices.
When he finally left, in 2003, he searched for a new tenant who would have the same respect for the space. He didn’t find who he was looking for.
A jewelry maker moved in. Blechman has seen recent photos of the offices, and he could spot changes that weren’t sympathetic to the space, he said. Like a missing window, and an added sculpture that stood out.
After spending a quarter-century in the building, he has no desire to return for a final visit. That, he said, would be too disturbing.
Greg Harm sounded the alarm on his blog earlier this week. The Lincoln native living in Austin, Texas, has long studied Lee Lawrie, an architectural sculptor who worked closely with Goodhue.
Lawrie’s hand is all over the Nebraska Capitol, including the Sower, but his most famous piece is his bronze Atlas in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Last month, Harm came across Blechman’s name -- and the animator's relationship to the offices -- while researching Lawrie and Goodhue. The two started corresponding.
And last week, Harm received an email from Blechman. The subject line: Sad news.
The building at 2 West 47th Street appeared to be doomed, destined for demolition with a hotel likely built in its place, according to New York’s Commercial Observer. The building had recently sold for $56.4 million and was shedding its 100 tenants, the newspaper reported. The buyers wouldn’t comment.
“What’s happening to this building is just a way of life in New York City,” Ripley said. “The cost of real estate is just so high, if the building isn’t turning a pretty penny, it’s coming down and they’ll put something else on it.”
From Texas, Harm talked to a friend in New York, Russ Dantzler, a Lincoln native and music promoter whose father, Carl, was an engineer at the Capitol in the 1950s.
Harm feared Goodhue’s offices already were gutted and long gone, so Dantzler grabbed his camera and visited the vacant penthouse.
He found many remaining touches of Goodhue -- the same oak paneling and vaulted ceiling and ornate fireplace. He returned for more photos.
Harm published some of his friend's pictures online this week.
“The thing has kind of been a time capsule,” Harm said, “this room where wonderful, wonderful things happened.”
They contacted Ripley, and there was some talk of trying to preserve the fixtures. It’s possible: The paneling could be disassembled and the windows removed and fireplace salvaged, for instance. But it’s unlikely, especially on short notice.
“It would be fun to have some piece of it, but it would be very difficult to do,” Ripley said.
He is grateful for the hour he spent on the 14th floor in 2003. He’s been comforted in the last decade just knowing the office that changed Lincoln’s skyline still existed.
“I lament its loss, to say the least.”