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A visitor to the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula enters the front lobby Thursday where the eight murals painted by E.S. Paxson have been reinstalled after being reframed and properly lighted. The murals, depicting historic events in the Missoula area, were removed four years ago during the renovation of the courthouse and kept in secure storage.

Edgar Paxson would be smiling in his mustache.

After four years gone missing from the entryway walls of the Missoula County Courthouse, the eight paintings that the nationally known artist was commissioned to produce in 1912 are back and in even fuller glory.

This time, dark custom frames and tasteful overhead lighting enhance historic western Montana scenes of, among others, Meriwether Lewis and men crossing the Clark Fork River in 1806, the signing of the Hellgate Treaty at Council Grove in 1855, and Chief Charlo’s Bitterroot Salish leaving their homeland in 1891.

“There is no building of the kind in all the country that can boast anything so good,” opined Col. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody when he was in town with his Wild West Show in 1914.

The paintings were removed to safe storage in August 2012, in the early stages of the five-phase, $16.4 million courthouse renovation. It’s finished now, all but exterior work that will go to bid next month and should be wrapped up by the end of summer.

Paxson’s prize Missoula pieces, which went on the courthouse walls in 1914, spent part of 2014 on display in the Missoula Art Museum, and by all appearances came through in fine fashion.

The paintings were down once before. During a restoration project in 1980, two paintings were found underneath the Paxson works. They’re now framed and illuminated too, and hanging above the landing of the courthouse’s north stairwell, between the second and third floor. The two are of a more general western theme – a wagon train rolling through the mountains.

“While the draftsmanship is strong, the coloration is only blocked in, using the characteristic light, pastel colors that Paxson used as underpaint,” a press release from the county said, citing information provided by the art museum.

An opposing school of thought has it that the underpaintings were those of a previous courthouse décor project that fell into disfavor with the locals. The Missoula Women’s Club, driven by Mrs. A.E. Pound, led a campaign to replace them. The reception at the dedication of the Paxson paintings on Nov. 9, 1914, was in honor of Pound as well as Paxson and his wife, Laura.

Amanda Bielby, the local painter who renovated and repainted the historic courtroom upstairs, repainted decorative numerals – 1 through 8 – under each painting to correspond with interpretive literature. The design of the numbers, Bielby said, is a tribute to the Native American influence.

Jackson Contracting was in charge of the reinstallation, which cost roughly $24,000, with another $7,000 for the framing. Because of the weight of the framed pieces – the larger ones weigh upwards of 250 pounds – Beaudette Structural Engineers was consulted to make sure the installation was sufficient to seismic standards.

Burnich Frame and Molding framed the paintings. Hogarth Lighting, Ltd., designed and supplied the picture lights based on the requirement and recommendation of Dennis Wright of Maxus Consulting Engineers PC. The pictures were up in mid-December.

“It’s funny, because people who see the paintings think they’ve been restored,” said Anne Hughes, the county’s director of communications and projects. “It’s just the fact that they’ve been framed and lit that really brings out his work.”

Paxson, who in 1911 furnished the Senate chambers of the state Capitol building in Helena with six murals, charged Missoula County only $1,000.

“The pictures are something which every Missoula County citizen will be proud to show to visiting friends,” wrote a Missoulian reporter on the eve of their dedication. “They are a credit to the county and Missoula is under lasting obligation to Mr. Paxson, for he has practically made a gift of his work to the county.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian