Replica WPA mural highlights restored St. Cloud fed building

WPA mural
In this March 13, 2012 photo, a replica of the Works Progress Administration mural "Construction-St. Cloud" by artist David Granahan hangs in the lobby of the Historic Federal Building in St. Cloud, Minn. The canvas 10 x 10-foot print hangs in the lobby of the building now owned by NetGain.
AP Photo/St. Cloud Times, Jason Wachter

ANN WESSEL, St. Cloud Times

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — It took two people to lift "Construction - St. Cloud," a replica of a Works Progress Administration mural by St. Cloud Technical High School graduate David Granahan, into the spot where the original once hung. It likely took rails and a crane to hoist the slab of granite depicted in the mural's foreground from the quarry to the surface.

For decades, the 9 1/2-foot-square mural overlooked one of the most prominent public gathering places in St. Cloud -- the post office -- paying tribute to an industry that helped to shape the city.

"It dominated that whole room," said Bob Lommel, 82, a volunteer at the Stearns History Museum, where the original "Construction" hangs as part of a granite industry exhibit. He recalled seeing the mural above a writing desk at the post office, tucked between the door to the postmaster's office and the stairway to the second floor.

Today, Netgain owns the former Federal Building at 720 St. Germain St. It occupies 21,000 square feet of the 32,000-square-foot space and rents out the rest. Its 58 employees provide information technology to health care clients including physician practices and rural hospitals.

"The rest of the property is really paint and carpet," Matt Riley, vice president of operations, told the St. Cloud Times as he surveyed the restored lobby on a recent afternoon.

The replica mural installed earlier this month is the final piece of the lobby restoration that features another WPA artwork -- Brenda Putnam's original plaster relief titled "The Northwest and Southeast Divided by the Mississippi." In addition to the mural, visitors to the lobby can also take in 16-foot ceilings, find the groove worn into the marble floor by postal customers standing in line, and examine photographs that show a lobby packed with well-dressed people.

Even more than catching a glimpse of the original ceiling once the 8-foot drop ceiling was peeled away, Riley said those historic photos prompted Netgain owners to undertake the restoration of a space he called "very dingy, very federal."

Netgain bought the building from the General Services Administration in 2005 at public auction, and started renovations in 2006. Work on the lobby started in 2007.

"Part of it is the building has a certain amount of character, and this (lobby restoration) adds to that," Riley said.

The business moved into the dark granite structure -- the stone came from the Diamond Pink Quarry in St. Joseph Township, according to museum records -- in 2010. Riley said the purchase price of the building allowed the company to restore the lobby without going over budget. The light fixtures and heating vents were custom-made. The marble floor was uncovered and polished. The walls were painted.

The color scheme reflects hues in the mural.

Riley said people have dropped in to ask whether the mural was the original. He said they wanted to know how the company had acquired the piece from the Stearns History Museum.

Copying the piece -- it was photographed and then printed on canvas -- required permission from the GSA. Eventually, a description of its significance will appear under the reproduction.

"I just think it's important to have WPA work available," said John Decker, an archivist at Stearns History Museum for 35 years. "It gave people a chance to show their talent. Also, it gave them a little bit of money."

In a November 1988 interview with the Times, Granahan said he earned $112 a month to paint the mural. Working in his Minneapolis studio, he completed the piece over seven months in 1938.

MaryAnne Beatty of the GSA's Public Building Service in Washington, D.C., relayed documentation provided by Granahan. His aim was to portray three elements of the granite industry -- quarrying the stone, shaping it by machine and cutting it by hand. The painting was based on sketches of employees at work in St. Cloud.

"You could go into a production shed and you could hardly see anybody because of the dust in there," said Decker, whose grandfather was a foreman at Cold Spring Granite for 50 years. "Safety has changed a lot, and technology has changed a lot. It's significant to see what was going on in the '30s and to compare it to today."

The mural hung in the building, which opened in 1938, until the post office moved out in 1965. Then it was rolled up and stored until the museum acquired it in 1979, museum records show. The Stearns County Historical Society received a $5,750 Minnesota Historical Society grant to help restore the painting, which went back on public view -- this time in the museum -- in 1989.

The original and the replica are now on view less than three miles apart. Decker said the more art on view the better.

"There should be artwork everyplace," Decker said.


Information from: St. Cloud Times

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.