- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s Capitol will have a new look by the time the state celebrates its 150th birthday next year, and party planners hope to bring the festivities to as many residents as possible.

With less than a year until the March 1 anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood in 1867, crews are showing progress on construction projects to spruce up the Capitol and surrounding area. For those who live far from Lincoln, organizers of the sesquicentennial are planning a series of events and programs that will take place throughout the state.

The Capitol is expected to have four new fountains in place before the celebration begins. The fountains are the last unfinished design feature of the Capitol, which was built in stages between 1922 and 1932. They were intended to sit in each of the building’s four open-air courtyards, but plans to construct them and install 20 murals were halted because of the Great Depression. The last of the murals were added in 1996.

“To leave that kind of architectural effort undone just didn’t seem appropriate,” said former state Sen. Bob Wickersham, who advocated for the fountains project as a member of the Nebraska Association of Former State Legislators. “It’s just inconceivable that we wouldn’t finish the building.”

Lawmakers approved $2.5 million for the fountains in 2014, overriding then-Gov. Dave Heineman’s veto. Heineman argued the fountains were an unnecessary expense.

Nebraska Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley said crews expect to have all of the fountains finished by the year’s end despite numerous logistical challenges. Because the courtyards are surrounded by offices, crews have had to haul wheelbarrows filled with concrete and dirt through the Capitol’s halls to access the four work sites.

“It’s a bit like building a ship in a bottle,” Ripley said.

Ripley said the project helped unearth a bit of Nebraska history. While digging in the southwest courtyard last week, crews discovered an old brick tunnel that housed steam pipes, which were used to heat Nebraska’s second state Capitol. The second Capitol was finished in 1888 but was poorly constructed and only lasted a few decades before the current Capitol replaced it.

Outside, crews have nearly finished work on a revitalized Centennial Mall that stretches from the Capitol’s north entrance into downtown Lincoln. Three new fountains have been installed on the Mall, which was built in 1967 to commemorate 100 years of Nebraska statehood. The Mall had fallen into disrepair, but was overhauled with $9.6 million raised by the Lincoln Parks Foundation.

The Centennial Mall project marks the culmination of years of work and planning, said Jeff Searcy, chairman of the Nebraska Capitol Environs Commission.

“It’s a long-term project and something that will be exciting for the entire state,” Searcy said. “The opportunity to tie that into the Nebraska Sesquicentennial next year is definitely an exclamation point for us.”

The sesquicentennial will feature at least 13 programs and events aimed at as many residents as possible, said Regan Anson, executive director of the nonprofit Nebraska 150 Celebration. The list includes a fitness challenge, a mobile children’s museum and a three-day train tour of Nebraska.

The group also plans to distribute books about renowned Nebraska author Willa Cather and Ponca Indian chief Standing Bear to elementary and high school students. At some point in the year, organizers will host a large-scale tribute to the state’s history on Lincoln’s Centennial Mall with a parade, light show, fireworks, music and art.

Anson said the group hopes to hold events within a two-hour drive of every Nebraska resident. Many of the ideas were borrowed from other states and gleaned from brainstorming sessions with a committee that includes first lady Susanne Shore, who is raising money for the celebration.

“One of our main goals is to bridge communities, connect Nebraskans and enhance state pride,” Anson said. “It’s a huge undertaking, but it will be amazing.”

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Online: https://ne150.org/

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