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Despite Gov. Mark Dayton’s objections, six massive paintings depicting Minnesota soldiers in Civil War battles will be rehung in the Governor’s Reception Room and anteroom at the newly renovated State Capitol.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s (MNHS) executive council voted unanimously Thursday to reinstall the century-old paintings that were temporarily removed during the Capitol’s $310 million renovation. The board decided that honoring veterans and maintaining the room’s historical integrity trumped arguments that the room should feature a broader array of art.

“The preservation argument is compelling,” said Executive Council member Eric Ahlness, a retired colonel with the Minnesota Army National Guard. “The Capitol is the place where people can learn about military history and learn about it in a context that honors the service of the veterans of the Civil War and beyond.”

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a retired history teacher, said he was pleased that the paintings will stay. Public sentiment, he said, was overwhelmingly behind keeping them up.

“It was the right decision to make,” he said. “One of the most important things Minnesota has done for our nation’s history should be commemorated in the most important room in the most important building in the state.”

The future of some of the Civil War artwork had become a bone of contention between Dayton and some prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who urged that the art be returned to its former spots. Dayton wanted the paintings removed and replaced with works of art that “more completely depict our great state’s varied history.” He was so impassioned about the issue that he stormed out of a meeting on the topic last week.

On Thursday, the governor issued a one-sentence statement: “It’s their decision to make and I accept their decision.”

The paintings are a familiar backdrop on TV and in photographs of the Governor’s Reception Room, which is often used for ceremonies and news conferences. The Capitol is on the National Register of Historic Places for both its architecture and its artwork, and under state law, the historical society — a nonprofit independent of the state but largely funded by it — had the final say on what to show there.

Preservation was key

The tone at Thursday’s MNHS council meeting, held at the Minnesota History Center, was sober and academic. There were no raised voices, no talk of politics. A group of giggling schoolchildren could be heard from the next room.

“This has been a very thoughtful, respectful and engaging process,” said Phyllis Rawls Goff, retired Hamline University chief of staff and president of the MNHS council.

Before the vote, MNHS staffers briefly explained the National Historic Register, the history of the Capitol and its artwork. Brian Szott, the historical society’s head of collections, said that the paintings were some of the most dramatic and impressive pieces of Civil War art in the country.

A handful of veterans lavished praise on the 30-member MNHS council, which is made up of business professionals and academics. “Veterans service organizations say thank you very much,” said Randy Tesdahl, department adjutant with the American Legion.

The historical society houses the state’s Historic Preservation Office, and staffers had indicated that preservation was the “biggest overall lens” the council would use in weighing its decisions. But the Capitol is visited by thousands of people daily for business and pleasure, and change is sometimes necessary, staffers acknowledged.

The six paintings — most of them are 8-feet-4 by 6-feet-8, and the biggest is nearly 15 feet long — were commissioned by Cass Gilbert, the Capitol’s architect, and hung shortly after the building opened in 1905. Gilbert designed the ornate reception room around the oils, which were painted by acclaimed artists of the day.

While the Civil War paintings will remain in the Governor’s Reception Room, two canvases that depict American Indians will be moved to another location at the Capitol and receive “robust interpretation.”

In October, the MNHS council voted to remove the paintings. One shows Father Louis Hennepin at St. Anthony Falls amid several Indians, one of them a bare-breasted woman; the other, a group of Dakota inking a treaty in the 1850s with white officials that stripped them of much of their land.

D. Stephen Elliott, MNHS’ director and CEO and a voting member on the council, said the art depicting Indians had made some Minnesotans “not feel welcomed and respected.”

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804