Barry Frantum remembers the first time he stood in the St. Paul City Council chambers and saw the murals lining the walls. When he looked up, he saw images of black men loading cargo onto a riverboat and of two American Indian men looking up at a white priest holding a crucifix.
"I was so stunned," said Frantum, an East Side resident who is a member of the Lakota tribe. "You walk in and you turn left, and, bam! It just smacks you in the face."
As the capital city has grown and diversified, the four murals from the 1930s — depicting a voyageur, steamboat captain, railroad surveyor and laborer, all of them white — have become outdated, local leaders and residents say. Next month, the City Council and Ramsey County Board are expected to vote to start the process of commissioning new murals to temporarily cover the old ones. The new murals will rotate in and out of the chambers, allowing visitors to view them alongside the original pieces.
The goal, officials say, is to honor the past while also ensuring that visitors feel welcome at City Hall.
The murals "seem to reflect a specific time in the history of St. Paul, and a specific perspective that is really very white and very male," said City Council President Amy Brendmoen. "There is something that's sort of contradictory about the feeling we want people to have when they're in the chamber, and what the murals portray."
The whole process is expected to take about a year, said Chad Roberts, Ramsey County Historical Society president. The budget is $34,570, with money coming from a joint city and county fund for building maintenance and upkeep.
"I think there's potential for this to spark a really interesting and important conversation throughout St. Paul as we do this work," said Council Member Rebecca Noecker. "What's important to us today? Who are we? And how do we portray that?"
The four existing murals were painted by noted Chicago artist John Norton, whose work is displayed elsewhere in Minnesota and across the country.
"He executed a huge number of murals," said Joel Dryer, executive director of the Illinois Historical Art Project. "They're everywhere."
In 2015, after receiving complaints about two Norton murals at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Ala., local leaders formed a committee to decide what to do with them. The murals, titled "The Old South" and "The New South," are similar to those in St. Paul — in each, a larger-than-life white figure towers over people of color in subservient roles.
Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight, who served on the committee, said the group "really had some tough discussions" before ultimately deciding to keep the murals and commission a new piece to hang alongside them.
"We concluded that we do not have the right to erase history or destroy art," Knight said. "I'm not enamored with the murals personally, but I just did not think it was my place to say, 'Hey, this is no longer appropriate.' They've been here since this courthouse was built."
The Ramsey County courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and proposed changes to the interior must be reviewed by the state, said George Gause, St. Paul's heritage preservation supervisor. Adding new art to the council chambers could affect the room's wood paneling, depending on how pieces are hung, he said.
Change and controversy
This isn't the first time local officials have tried to rethink the space.
In 1989, there was an effort to add murals depicting the civil rights and women's rights movements to the council chambers, in the same style and at the same size as the existing murals. It's unclear why they never came to fruition, Gause said.
The current discussions about the Norton murals have happened among a small group of city and county officials who are largely in agreement. The group is treading carefully, Brendmoen said, keeping in mind the controversy that arose in 2016 when Gov. Mark Dayton wanted to remove some Civil War paintings at the State Capitol.
Council members said at a committee meeting Wednesday that they're impatient to bring new art into the chambers, and aim to have new pieces in place in less than a year. Still, they're expecting opposition.
"Of course there's going to be pushback," Brendmoen said. "It's change."