Grant County Courthouse - Art Detective

By C. A. Ray
Published in Grant County Herald

"She is searching for clues about the Grant County Courthouse's colorful past."

On Monday and Tuesday last week, a detective, of sorts, was digging around for clues in the Grant County Courthouse. Eileen Grogan is a consultant for Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. of New Berlin, Wisconsin. She was hired by Grant County to look at the many murals and decorative scrolls and other wall designs on the walls and ceilings of the Grant County Courthouse, determine their shape and advise the County Board of Commissioners on what to do to restore their beauty.

In some cases, she has to find them first. While paintings such as the four panels on the ceiling of the rotunda are very visible, painted decorations and murals also once adorned the courtroom and walls of the courthouse front entrance. They were painted over years and years ago as they faded, tastes changed, or they suffered water damage.

For instance, in the arched top of the niche in back of the judges bench, monograms were painted of the letters LEX, which is Latin for law. On the wall on either side of the bench are symbols in gold, one of "Knowledge," and one of "Power." A mural about 18 by 25 feet in size, on the ceiling of the courtroom, is a painting of a "rent in the clouds, revealing a vision of 'Justice and Power of the Law.'"

None of these paintings have been seen for at least half a century or longer. The wall decorations are covered with at least six layers of paint, and the ceiling mural is covered by asbestos based fiberboard, and under that, more paint.

Grogan knows all of this because of her detective work. She has studied descriptions of the original courthouse written in a special booklet printed for the courthouse's dedication in 1906. She has also studied photos of the recently restored Lawrence County Courthouse in Deadwood, South Dakota, which is a near-mirror image of the Grant County Courthouse: designed by the same architect, built with the same materials, and even decorated by the same artist, Odin J. Oyen, of LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

But a good detective also has to get their hands dirty. Grogan uses various solvents to remove layers of paint, one layer at a time, until she gets down to the original. In the courtroom this technique revealed that there is indeed LEX monograms.

When workmen removed the bulletin boards from the walls in the front entrance to the courthouse, County Coordinator James Standish was amazed to find scrolling painted on the walls. Grogen figured something didn't look quite right and removed a patch of paint, revealing even older scrolling. It is the original scrolling painted in the green and gold mentioned in the dedication booklet.

The life-sized rotunda paintings representing four features of early 1900 Grant County are the Courthouses most striking art. They are titled "Sowing," "Agriculture," "Milling," and "Dairying," and painted with a water-based paint. That is unfortunate because the courthouse roof has leaked on and off for years, damaging the paintings. Standish recalls the paintings were touched up around 30 years ago, but now they have many water stains and portions of the plaster surface has come off or is crumbling.

Grogan has climbed up and taken a close look at the paintings to determine their condition precisely. She has also taken minute samples of the paints throughout the courthouse to examine under a microscope back at her lab. In this way she will determine what types of paint have been used, and what pigments they contained. This will be invaluable information if there is a restoration.

Some of her detective work has revealed surprises. In the Board of Commissioners meeting room there are four painted panels portraying the settlement of the county. Anyone who has attended meetings in the room remembers the series starting with two Indians killing a buffalo, then discussing the encroachment of the settlers, third is a painting of a settler with his family in a prairie schooner drawn by oxen, and the last picture shows a peaceful scene of a woman watering her dairy cattle.

Most assumed these paintings were painted on the wall, but they are actually painted on a fabric, most likely canvas, and glued to the wall. Although these four paintings retain their vivid color and are in the best shape of any of the art on the courthouse walls, the fabric is coming loose in some places.

Grogan said she finds her work endlessly fascinating both from a historic and artistic standpoint. She brought dozens of paint and wall samples, as well as photos, back to her lab Tuesday afternoon. She also brought with her something she found really exciting: the original stencils used for the original artwork. They were found in an old box in a dusty corner of the attic during the ongoing renovation. Grogen says they will be invaluable during the restoration.

Eventually Grogan will present a full written report to the county board, detailing the art work, its condition and giving a recommendation on what should be done with it. If a restoration is attempted, Standish said it would be a good candidate for a Legacy Grant through the state of Minnesota.


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