183 Lincoln, NE: Prairie Palace

They offered to show me around, and we started by going to the Thai restaurant right by the Indian restaurant. Being Lincoln, Nebraska, this meant THE Thai and Indian restaurant. (Though, surprisingly, downtown had the Bosnian Kitchen.) Rachel and Pat said that their workmates often rolled their eyes at their interest in other cultures, even foreign cuisine. "I traveled to India with my father," Rachel said. "It's his favorite place to travel. And I've explored many foreign countries on my own. Not many other people from Lincoln have traveled anywhere besides Disneyland," she noted. "We don't feel too isolated here. It's a small town. You can't go out without running into someone you know. Plus we meet people passing through, or we travel to see friends."

I asked what Rachel could tell me as a museum employee. Rachel said, "We get spillover traffic from the movie series which is shown here. For example, the Great Plains Film Fest is going on now. It shows only movies made by or about Great Plains people. But the film program is moving, so the museum will have less traffic and fewer open hours. It's a shame. It was a great way to expose the art to people who might not normally come here.1 I can also tell you from my other job teaching: The kids I teach thought they had to show I.D. and be eighteen to go to a museum. They also didn't know it was free.

"On football game days, we get overrun with fans looking for bathrooms. Football is a religion here," she lamented. "On game day, one of every three Nebraska residents can be found in the university's football stadium. The former coach is now a state senator. As if the one job in any way prepares you for the other. At work for everyone, the dress code is slackened on the Friday before games. Employees can wear casual dress--so long as it has the University of Nebraska logo. But of course people here forgive football players any behavior. I hung out with the artsy punk rock kids. One time a group of football players came over and just beat the crap out of the guys I was with for no reason."

After dinner, they drove me around Lincoln as the car stereo played a CD made by Pat's band. It was pretty good. I was surprised to find heavy traffic in Lincoln even during the university's summer break. "In addition to the big-city art like the Hopper painting, we have big city parking problems, too," Pat joked. "Conversations here often start with 'Where'd ya park?'"

In front of the painting, Pat had noted, "There is a one area of Lincoln where you see this style of housing, near 11th and D." They drove me through that neighborhood, where the Halls, who donated Room in New York, had lived. Maybe they lived in a marriage like the one in the painting too.

I asked Pat and Rachel to show me the State capitol. Harper's magazine called it perhaps the quintessential American building, as others have called the buildings in Hopper's paintings. It is the second-tallest state capital and broke the mold of domed state capitols. A square, two-floor structure surrounds a courtyard from which rises a 400-foot tower topped by a 19-foot cast bronze sculpture, The Sower. It featured marble from Italy, Belgium, and Vermont inlaid with gilt letters spelling out Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the walls were adorned with a gilt bas-relief of pioneers heading off toward the sun. The chandelier in the rotunda was the largest in the world when it was installed.

The Nebraska Senate has the unicameral formation, meaning that the legislature is not divided into two parties. George Norris of Nebraska argued, "There is no more use for a two-branch legislature than there is for two governors. The bicameral system was modeled after the British parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. But the constitutions of our various states are built upon the idea that there is but one class." So, in 1934, Nebraskans voted to get rid of half their legislature. Each senator here represents the same number of people. Thus, one from Omaha represents 48 city blocks, while one from out west represents 7000 square miles. There is only one African American face in the Nebraska legislature photo, and he is from Omaha.

Across the street from the capitol stood the governor's mansion, a brick suburban McMansion, complete with security gates and a red Ford pick-up in the driveway. Nebraska home-building had come a long way since pioneer days, when a room in Lincoln might be called a Prairie Palace and built out of sod, which got nicknamed "Nebraska marble."2 (Windmills were called "Prairie Skyscrapers.") The sea of grass between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains was dismissed as a desert until the Homestead Act of 1862 opened ten percent of the nation and was championed by Missouri's Senator Thomas Hart Benton, whose grand-nephew of the same name was one of Hopper's contemporary painters.3 A popular song at the time said, "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm."

Hopper's teacher, Robert Henri (he pronounced it "Hen'-rye") was born Robert Henry Cozad in a town founded by his homesteading father: Cozad, Nebraska. In 1882, his father shot and killed a man, and the Cozad family fled to the East Coast and changed their names.

Before the homesteaders arrived, a room in Lincoln might have been a teepee. The Omaha, Ponca, Oto, Iowae, Sac Fox, Winnebago, Cheyenne, and Arapaho all lived on or near this land.

1A television series tried to address that problem by examining artworks in the Sheldon. It was called The Picture Show and was narrated by actor and art aficionado Vincent Price.
2Being smack in the middle of the continent, the dirt here is some of the oldest around. Mammoths are the Nebraska state fossil. Nebraska residents have a 1 in 10 chance that their house sits over an elephant fossil.
3Interestingly, the law was only repealed in 1976, and Alaska is still excluded.

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