The four colossal white men in the murals lining the St. Paul City Council chambers gazed down Wednesday as council members made plans to introduce them to the new St. Paul.
After years of discussion, the council voted to start the process of commissioning four new murals to hang in City Hall’s main public meeting space. The new pieces won’t replace the existing ones — instead, they’ll depict a modern, diverse vision of the city and rotate in and out of the chambers so they can be viewed alongside the originals.
“We are embarking on a process that is not going to destroy our history — that is impossible to do,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, noting the criticism in recent weeks from residents and others who say covering the murals will erase the city’s past. “It will keep our history alive and current and reflective of who St. Paul is today,” Noecker said.
The Ramsey County Board, which holds meetings in the same room, unanimously approved a similar resolution Tuesday. The city and county together are calling for the creation of a public art task force to help choose artists to create new pieces. The process is expected to take about a year and will have a budget of $34,570.
Council members said the task force is an opportunity for residents to start taking control of “the people’s chamber.”
“Let’s engage the people of our community, in the fullness and totality of who they are, in reimagining something that we can be proud of and that helps everybody here feel like their voice is being heard,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson.
Noted Chicago artist John Norton painted the four larger-than-life murals, which depict a voyageur, steamboat captain, railroad surveyor and laborer in the 1930s. Council members and residents visiting the council chambers have been raising concerns about the images for years, saying they are outdated and not representative of St. Paul today.
The four white men depicted in the murals tower over people of color, including black men loading cargo onto a river boat and two American Indian men looking up at a white priest holding a crucifix.
Council Member Jane Prince, who represents a portion of the city’s East Side, said her constituents — especially those of Dakota heritage — “have run out of patience over the three years that I’ve been on the council.”
“Showing people of color in subservient roles, subjugated by the majority culture, in this chamber of all places is simply wrong,” Prince said.
The only dissent came from Council Member Dan Bostrom, Prince’s East Side colleague.
“I’ve been in these chambers, actually spent a lot of time here, since 1970. And I have an appreciation for the sanctity of the building and the offices that are operated here,” Bostrom said. “The murals are the history of this building. It was built back in the early ’30s — that’s the way it was.”
Minutes after the 6-1 vote, Bostrom was honored for his more than two decades on the council. Wednesday’s council meeting was Bostrom’s last — he will retire Dec. 31.
There are no details yet about what form the new murals will take. Council President Amy Brendmoen said council members decided not to prescribe exactly what the public art task force should do.
“I think the options are endless,” Brendmoen said. “I think that there are ways that we can put in something that’s timeless.”