Hartley Burr Alexander was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1873 and spent his school years in Syracuse, Nebraska. He was many things over his life, including a professor of philosophy, scholar, poet, iconographer, and writer.
Hartley Burr Alexander attended the University of Nebraska and received his bachelor’s degree in 1897. He attended Columbia University, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. For years he worked as a writer for Webster’s Dictionary before becoming a professor and the Dean of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska in 1908. Finally, he established a philosophy program at Scripps College in 1928 and remained at the college until he died in 1939.
Alexander was a student of political thought and democracy and wrote many essays and books. He was also an expert in Native cultures and was a prolific writer on the topic. These backgrounds and his Nebraska roots made him a perfect choice as the thematic consultant for the Nebraska State Capitol. His philosophy and ideals are ever-present in the inscriptions and artistic displays throughout the building.
His specific theme for the art and symbolism in the Nebraska Capitol centered around the creation of the cosmos, the development of democracy, and the settlement of Nebraska. To complete his theme, Alexander drew upon lore from Plains Indians, various philosophers, and statesmen. Alexander’s work with Goodhue opened up opportunities to work on other buildings, including the Oregon State Capitol and the Rockefeller Center.
With the death of architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in 1924, Alexander became Hildreth Meière’s mentor. She relied upon Alexander to provide her with iconography to depict at the Nebraska State Capitol, and she also depended upon him to critique her designs:
…I have never worked with a greater sense of real creative joy, or belief in the importance of what I was doing. This was due to the greatness of the building, and the inspiration of Mr. Goodhue, and after his death, that of Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander. I do not know to what extent the people of Nebraska realize how much the Capitol owes to [the] imagination, judgment, extraordinary education and tireless energy and enthusiasm of Dr. Alexander. I do not know whether his connection with the work was an official one, but it was he who wrote the inscriptions, worked out the symbolism of all the sculpture and decorations, and passing also on [sculptor Lee] Lawrie’s first sketches, actually directing mine. Nothing of mine was completed without his approval, and many of my panels were restudied time and again until he felt that they were the best I could do. I had absolute confidence in him, and rightly so, for as far as I know, he was always right. I think he is the only man, who, after Goodhue’s death, saw the Capitol as a whole, and with that singleness of vision, he was able to hold Mr. Lawrie’s work and mine into that unity with the architecture itself which alone makes successful enrichment. That the sculpture and structural decorations mean something, and make the building philosophically and intellectually interesting as well as beautiful, is thanks to him.Hildreth Meière, letter to Mrs. Shellenberger, Sept 9, 1930 , Hartley Burr Alexander Papers, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, California.