Sculptural Herms, Omaha Union Station, and Art Deco

Stone sculpted figures in the side of the Nebraska State Capitol building.
Figure 1
Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sculpted figures from left to right are Hammurabi, Moses, Akhnaton, and Solon.

Photo courtesy of Ammodramus, CC-Zero, Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever looked up at a building and found it looking back down at you? If so, you were probably looking at the building’s herms. A herm is a sculpture with a head, and perhaps a torso, above a plain, usually squared lower section. The form originated in Ancient Greece, as a sacred stone object connected with the cult of Hermes. Over time the objects took on human form, usually surmounted with the head of Hermes. The form was later adopted by the Romans, and revived during the Renaissance in the form of “term” (or terminal) figures. In Classical architecture, a term is a human head and bust that continues as a square tapering pillar-like form. .[1]

The appeal of herms for more recent styles of architecture is found in two noteworthy buildings here in Nebraska. One is located in Lincoln, the other in Omaha. Both were built about the same time, and both incorporate herms to celebrate the purpose of the buildings. A closer look however, shows that the herms have distinctly different appearances, and were used to convey significantly different messages.
A public building very familiar to many in the Midwest is the Nebraska State Capitol (designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976), designed by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue in 1920. The building was constructed of Indiana limestone from 1922 to 1932, and combines three architectural styles: Art Deco, Neo-Byzantine, and Gothic Revival. Goodhue incorporated herms of Classical figures on the four main pavilions. Overseeing the public entrances, stern figures gaze down, silently establishing an aura of dignity and respectability worthy of the highest level of government in the state. The figures represent ancient lawmakers, and suggest a tradition and direct connection between 20th century political endeavors to those begun in ancient Greece (Figure 1).

Stone carvings of words and two men into the side of Omaha Union Station.
Figure 2
Omaha Union Station detail of East entrance. Flanking this entrance are herms representing stylized trainmen. A brakeman looks East holding a wrench in right hand, and a long-spout oil can in his left. A locomotive engineer looks West, holding a lantern.

Photo courtesy of Robertmoo40 via en.wikipedia to Commons, CC.

The herms that welcome visitors to Omaha’s Union Station, on the other hand, establish a much different feeling. The station was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in 1929, and constructed in 1929-1930. Los Angeles architect Underwood, also renowned for his design of a number of Union Pacific (UP) Rustic style lodges in western national parks including Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park (designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987), designed the Omaha station while he was the Union Pacific Railroad’s corporate architect. The building is an outstanding example of the Art Deco Style in the United States. An element of this style are the heroic, muscled figures cast in terra-cotta, located at the main entrances to the station (Figure 2). The Omaha Union Pacific’s herms appear to oversee the safe transfer of travelers to and from the station. While god-like in their aspect and dignity, a closer look reveals the herms celebrate the “common man.” They also represent key personnel involved in railway travel.

Underwood’s subtle handling of the herms at Omaha Union Station show figures seeming to grow out of the terra-cotta façade. Whether or not Underwood took cues from Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol is not documented, but their placement and “growth” out of the building bear striking similarity to those of the Capitol building. Unlike the reserved figures in Lincoln however, the Omaha herms offer visitors a more personal, more “democratic” perspective. Underwood’s progressive Art Deco design for Omaha Union Station became a hallmark for the UP as a showpiece for the railroad. That herms were successfully applied to both buildings speaks to the continuing facility of the architectural element. Where one emphasized civic purpose, the other represented progress, technology, and glamour.



Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 11, 2016, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Mark Chavez.

[1] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herma; and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Term_(architecture)

Last updated: June 14, 2018