Aerial view of the North Dakota State Capitol

Treasures in the Dakotas

August 06, 2016

We can finally check one of the big ones off of our Edgar Miller bucket list: the North Dakota State Capitol! One of Miller’s most extensive art installation commissions also happens to be one of his most difficult to get to and see. In fact, due to its remoteness, many die-hard Miller aficionados have never seen them in person. The stars finally aligned, and we traveled out to Bismarck recently in the hopeful spirit that many pioneering settlers no doubt felt when heading out to that expansive territory, with the belief that treasures would be found there.

 

The original capitol building ablaze

 

The original North Dakota capitol building was built in 1883-84, in a Romanesque Revival style made popular by the famous American architect H.H. Richardson. A stately structure, it caught fire and was completely destroyed in 1930, and thus, the state had to build anew. Instead of opting for a replica of the past structure, or aiming for a tired, nostalgic classicism all-too-often employed when designing public buildings in the U.S., the governor, George Schafer, pushed for a completely modern design and construction, including an 18-story office tower to house all the government offices. Side note: a typical domed capitol, while beautiful, often utilizes only 30% of its interior space for actual work functions, whereas the North Dakota capitol uses over 80% of its interior space.

 

John W. Root and John A. Holabird

 

While local North Dakota architects are given top line credit for the building, which broke ground in 1934, the noted Chicago firm Holabird and Root was also brought in to consult, and the aesthetic and structural results appear to be highly influenced by H&R’s popular sleek, if somewhat perfunctory, art deco style, which was made popular in Chicago during the 1920s with buildings such as the Palmolive, the Board of Trade, the Chicago Daily News, and many more. Because of his close professional connection with friends Holabird and Root, Miller was brought in to do much of the interior design and decoration.

 

Miller's signature, an M with an arrow, hidden in plain sight on one of his bas relief sculptures

 

In typical Miller fashion, his installed art is not merely decorative but tells the rich history of the land in which the building was erected. Each figure on the front façade of the building depicts an elemental piece of the history of the Dakotas: a Native American warrior defending his people’s lands; Sacajawea guiding Lewis and Clark through their exploration of the American frontier; a family reflecting the heavy mining culture that emerged during the industrial age; white settlers entering the unknown and dangerous wilderness; and another Native American figure depicting a shaman performing a ritual dance.

 

 

While the people of the Dakotas, settlers and natives, have always taken a great deal of pride in their Native American heritage, it should not be overlooked that Miller’s conscious choice to craft images showing the intrinsic beauty of Native American culture onto the walls of the capitol building was progressive for the time. Even though many art deco-period designs used Native American art styles, it was often used in a way which today we call cultural appropriation, where the art styles were borrowed merely for aesthetic reasons, often bordered on caricature, and the context and traditions of the native peoples were rarely depicted or paid homage to. Miller, though he was born into a white settler family in Idaho, found himself identifying much more closely with the Native Americans he befriended as a young man exploring the wilderness of his home state, and often made vocal statements deploring their treatment during the 19th century, as these culturally rich communities were systematically exterminated by the U.S. Army and deputized settlers and vigilantes.

 

Turnstile with Miller's high relief sculpture above

 

Inside the building, Miller added highly detailed ornamental art above the turnstile doors. Above one, he created a depiction of the iconic Midwestern farmer and his livestock, and above the other, a miner and a set of backhoes. While somewhat cartoonish, these images reminded visitors to the capitol of the two main industries of the state until they were permanently closed after the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, for security purposes.

Most impressively, Miller also crafted highly detailed cast bronze elevator doors. These doors, which were cast in eight sets of doors for the first and second floors of the main hall, again depict the history of the Dakotas: a cowboy and Native American in battle; an explorer and buffaloes ranging; a miner and a ranch hand; and a farming family. Looking closer, in between the major figurative depictions are bands of even more detail: a railroad locomotive and a wagon train; herds of sheep and cattle; a farmer harvesting wheat and a native woman harvesting corn. Needless to say, these elevator doors were the highlight of the experience. They are completely unique and made specifically for this building. As detailed and exquisite are some decorative hardware installations of the art deco period, these works transcend beautiful design to highly contemplated narrative art.                                                                                                           

 

While we cannot confirm this with a second source, in addition to the ample relief sculptural work on the façade, turnstiles, and elevator doors, the capitol tour guide informed us that Miller also designed much of the lighting in the building, from the hanging lights designed after wheat stalks in the main hall, the sconce lamps designed to mimic designs recently discovered in King Tut’s tomb (in 1922) in the legislature’s connecting corridor, and the ceiling lighting designs in both the House and Senate chambers, the former to represent the moon and stars, and the latter to represent the sun.

 

Main hall of the capitol with lighting designed after wheat stalks

Legislative chambers. The ceiling is meant to represent the moon and stars.

 

While we don’t expect every fan of Miller’s work to be able to make the trip to Bismarck to see his work there in person, if you are ever there, we highly recommend taking the tour and checking it out. We are also very thankful that the people of North Dakota have taken such good care of their building, and even know and mention the name of the artist who is responsible for lovingly depicting their history, in many ways a history he understood all too well as a son of the West.              

 

Elevator banks on the second level, overlooking the main hall