In 2002 I went to see this job when it was under construction along the south side of Interstate 80, at a site that might best be described as The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Nebraska. The nearest exit was Kearney, a long way west down the highway. To reach the monument I took the exit and doubled back on the feeder road ’til I saw trucks and equipment. Another artist, Rob Evans, and I were led across the four-lane highway to the monumental rusting steel skeleton being assembled on the far side. It was like a gigantic covered bridge, about two-and-a-half stories tall but in the form of a grand archway. Climbing through it allowed us to understand the layout of the future museum. It felt like exploring one of those monster sand crawler machines in the first Star Wars film.
The arch would somehow be moved, rotated 90 degrees so as to span the highway and anchored at either end to tall stone pylons. I had no idea how this could be done.
Visitors to the monument would ascend an escalator at the north end to the first room, a full two-and-a-half stories tall, and pass through the far wall into a row of one-story exhibits, coming out into another full-height room at the south end of the arch. From there they would take stairs formed into the artificial stone along one wall, up to the second floor of one-story exhibits, heading back toward the north end where they took an escalator down.
I was intimidated by the size but eager to start. When I returned a few months later, the building was almost done. They had closed down the highway at 4:00 a.m. one night and used the same monstrous crawlers that NASA used to ferry the space shuttles from the Vertical Assembly Building to the launch pad. The arch was slowly jockeyed into position and hooked up to the pylons. Then the interior walls went in.
My responsibility was the two big rooms. They featured a boiling cloud skyscape above Pinnacle Rock in Utah at the north end and, at the south end, a dark, rugged ravine under moonlight with a full-scale train trestle overhead featuring the sounds and sparks of a train crossing above. I also had two of the smaller exhibit murals.
Rob and eight other muralists he had recruited took care of the remaining exhibit murals and all did excellent work.
The next time you cross Nebraska, draw diagonal lines from each corner of the map and where they cross you’ll find the Great Platte Archway Monument, right in the Middle of Nowhere.