The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 16, 2014

Minn. Capitol renovation sparks debate on building's art


When a mural titled "The Divine and Moral Law" debuted at the Capitol in the early 20th century, a New York art critic supposedly pronounced the depiction of Moses on Mount Sinai the best work yet by famed Greenwich Village painter John LaFarge.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a boom in construction of state capitols, county courthouses, libraries and other large public buildings. Most common was the Italian Renaissance style of the Minnesota Capitol, with art that was heavy on Roman and biblical imagery that recalled the European masters.

The designer of the Capitol, architect Cass Gilbert, was also influenced by an architectural movement of the time known as Beaux-Arts, which emphasized the incorporation of art into large buildings. Gilbert left lots of open wall space for framed paintings and large murals in the House, Senate and Supreme Court chambers and the rotunda.

Beaux-Arts designs were widely adopted throughout the U.S. after the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where noted architects constructed the so-called White City.

"They understood that a lot of these places didn't have art museums," said Brian Pease, the Capitol's historic site manager. "This was a place for them to bring culture and education to the forefront of the public. It was an opportunity to see classical works of art, which in Minnesota in 1900 didn't come easy."

Today, much of Gilbert's wall space has been filled with portraits of Minnesota's 39 governors. Dayton questioned whether a painting of every single governor still needs to be hung in public, a tradition that started in the 1940s.

Beginning in the spring, work crews will take down paintings and sculpture and cover murals and statues. The Capitol will be a construction zone through 2017. Lawmakers themselves will be forced out for part of that time, though final arrangements have not been made for where they will meet.

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