Aerial view of the North Dakota State Capitol

Treasures in the Dakotas

August 06, 2016

Bismarck, North Dakota

The North Dakota State Capitol is one of Miller’s most extensive and remote art installation commissions. Located in Bismarck, the Capitol building isn't particularly accessible to tourists and casual sightseers. 

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. Instead of opting for a replica of the past structure, the governor, George Schafer, pushed for a completely modern design and construction, including an 18-story office tower to house all the government offices. Schafer's design was much more efficient than traditional capitol buildings which often utilize only 30% of their interior space for actual work functions.  The new North Dakota capitol uses over 80% of its interior space.


John W. Root and John A. Holabird


While local North Dakota architects are given credit for the building,   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 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 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


Miller's installed art is not merely decorative but tells the history of the land in which the building was erected. Each figure on the front façade of the building depicts a 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 of miners; 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  have always taken a great deal of pride in their Native American heritage, Miller's decision to depict Native American scenes on the Capitol building was very progressive for the time. While many art deco-period designs used Native American art styles, much of this work is culturally appropriated. Miller, on the other hand,  found himself identifying much more closely with the Native Americans and was vocally opposed to their mistreatment in the 19th century.

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.

Miller also crafted cast bronze elevator doors. These doors, which were cast in eight sets of doors for the first and second floors of the main hall, 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 scenes 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.                                                                                                          


Miller also designed much of the lighting in the building.  The hanging lights are modeled after wheat stalks, the sconce lamps are designed to mimic designs discovered in King Tut’s tomb (in 1922), and the ceiling light designs represent the moon,the stars, and the sun (in the House and Senate chambers).


Main hall of the capitol with lighting designed after wheat stalks

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



Elevator banks on the second level, overlooking the main hall