Fight erupts over Civil War art at the state Capitol

ST. PAUL -- A heated debate is roiling over a proposal to remove Civil War paintings from the Governor's Reception Room in the Minnesota State Capitol.

ST. PAUL -- A heated debate is roiling over a proposal to remove Civil War paintings from the Governor’s Reception Room in the Minnesota State Capitol.

Last week, the state Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board voted 5-3 to recommend that the four historic paintings not be returned to the building’s most ornate room when the $310 million Capitol renovation is completed in January.

Gov. Mark Dayton called for removing the battle scenes in an Oct. 27 letter to the Minnesota Historical Society. While the paintings “portrayed one episode of Minnesota’s history and rightly honored the heroic sacrifices by thousands of Minnesotans,” he wrote that he believes the room should be filled with art that more completely depicts the state’s history.

“It should better represent the full complexion of our state and a more varied perspective on our history, geography and culture,” he said.

His proposal has sparked stiff opposition.


“The Capitol was built in the memory of Civil War veterans,” Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood and a CAAP Board member, said in an interview Monday.

“The paintings were commissioned by the Capitol’s architect, Cass Gilbert, for that room, and specifically the Civil War paintings memorialized the contributions of the soldiers and also the people of Minnesota at that time who built the building in their memory. We need to honor that and keep that part of our history with the restoration.”

Dean circulated a memo to other Republican lawmakers Sunday drumming up resistance to removing the art. He said several announced their support, and he expects influential DFL legislators to join the opposition.

The CAAP Board’s recommendation conflicts with one from an arts panel that studied the issue during the previous year. The State Capitol Preservation Commission’s art subcommittee advocated in August that the four paintings - “The Battle of Gettysburg,” “The Second Minnesota Regiment at Mission Ridge,” “The Battle of Nashville” and “The Fourth Minnesota Regiment Entering Vicksburg” - remain in the reception room.

Both the subcommittee and the CAAP Board called for removing two other paintings from the room - “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” - to other locations in the Capitol because they are historically inaccurate and deemed offensive depictions of American Indians.

The planning board didn’t state whether the Civil War paintings should be displayed elsewhere in the Capitol or be removed from the building.

The 22-member Capitol Preservation Commission, which includes Dayton, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and five DFL and five Republican legislators, is scheduled to take up the issue Tuesday. But they won’t have the final word.

By law, the Minnesota Historical Society is the final arbiter of conflicts over art in the Capitol. The society’s executive council will take up the Civil War paintings issue in early December, said spokeswoman Jessica Kohen.


In a test vote earlier this month, the Historical Society panel voted down a motion to return the paintings to the reception room. Kohen said members wanted to get feedback from the CAAP Board and the Preservation Commission before making a final decision.

No matter what that decision is, Kohen said, “it’s highly unlikely that any art will be back in the reception room by Jan. 3,” when the restored Capitol reopens, because the paintings are still being preserved.

And no matter where they are located, state officials want all the Civil War paintings displayed at one site. “We want all these pieces located together because they tell a story, said CAAP Board executive secretary Paul Mandel.


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