Two murals — one of Benjamin Franklin and one depicting a woman reading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and scenes from the book — will go up in historic downtown Franklin after the groups got the OK from a city board.

A mural of Benjamin Franklin will go on the building at 351 E. Jefferson St., which is owned by the Franklin Development Corp. and is next to the railroad tracks. The building has been remodeled to serve as a temporary field office for the Jefferson Street road construction crews. Its future use hasn’t been determined.

The art is part of the Johnson County Community Foundation’s Color the County program and will be painted on a metal surface then installed on the east and north sides of the building.

In a separate display also downtown, a mural of a 14-foot tall woman reading a book, a squid, an old fashioned scuba diver and a dated submarine will go up on the north side of the building, facing Monroe Street, at 100 S. Jackson St.

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The building houses a business, the Franklin Department of Public Art, which is operated by Gordon Strain, a private artist and Franklin College professor. He plans to paint directly onto the wall of the building, which neighbors Ann’s Restaurant, Generations Body Shop and a public parking lot that hosts the Franklin Farmer’s Market in the spring and summer.

The city’s five-member board of zoning appeals approved both murals this week after considering requests to allow the installations — considered by city government as signs with no regard to the content. City rules govern the size of signs, but decisions are not based on the content of the displays. The community foundation mural was approved unanimously; Strain’s display was approved by a 4-1 vote.

The Ben Franklin mural is more than 20 times the size of displays the city would typically allow on the building. The art on the Jackson Street business is nearly 10 times the size of what city rules allow.

Whether the murals would be allowed wasn’t clear because the community foundation and Strain planned the work and didn’t realize they had to seek an exemption from the city’s sign rules.

The community foundation had no issue following the process, but Strain hesitated because he thinks the city should differentiate between signs and art. In the end, he too applied for a variance from the city’s rules.

The issue isn’t about art at all, city officials have said, and murals of a certain size can be painted anywhere in the city with no review or permitting process. When the size of the art, sign or advertisement exceeds what the city allows based on zoning and the size of the building, the owner must seek an exemption from the board of zoning appeals.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits communities from prohibiting displays, such as signs or advertisements, based on the content of the sign. Businesses or organizations could paint advertisements and call them art, and because of the federal law, the city couldn’t prohibit it. The only way to prevent the city from becoming littered with signs or advertisements is to limit the size and number of displays, regardless of the content, based on the size and location of the building, the city attorney has said.

For example, the community foundation mural is more than 1,700 square feet, but city rules allow for a maximum of 75 square feet of signage. Strain’s display, which includes a projecting sign, is planned to cover 645 square feet, but the city’s sign rules only allow for 67.5 square feet of signage, according to the city’s analysis of the proposals.

City staff cautioned the board of zoning appeals to only consider the size, not the content, but also consider that the community foundation mural would be installed in the gateway into downtown Franklin, and whether it could add to the community. Strain’s mural south of the courthouse could also create a new focal point and draw more visitors to an area where more small businesses have opened in recent years, the city staff report said.

Kim Minton, vice president of development at the community foundation, asked the board to approve the mural because it would not harm the community or the building, which is one of the factors the board must consider when voting on an exemption from the sign code. The design was a winner in the mural contest and depicts Benjamin Franklin wearing florescent green glasses, surrounded by an array of colorful kites.

“It adds namesake to the city because of the Ben Franklin aspect,” Minton said. “This does not disparage the beauty of authenticity to structures but adds vibrance to the thriving city.”

More than two dozen residents came to the meeting to support the community foundation’s mural.

“I think this would be a tremendous addition to what we already have downtown,” said Rob Shilts, executive director of Franklin Heritage, which repairs and salvages old homes that have fallen into disrepair and also owns and operates The Historic Artcraft Theatre. “After the city has worked for 20 years to restore facilities like the Artcraft and getting the downtown festivals going, this is the place where people want to be.”

Shilts had also written a letter to the board, asking the members to approve the community foundation’s mural because tasteful public art supports a vibrant historic downtown, and the design and building don’t distract from the historic nature of the building.

He also encouraged the city to begin a juried public art program that would allow for tasteful public art to be installed, similar to Discover Downtown Franklin design committee’s approval of facade designs for downtown building renovations.

One resident had asked the city to say no to the community foundation’s mural on Jefferson Street. Resident Craig Smith said in a letter to the board that he owns an adjacent historic property and opposed the mural based only on the size.

“While there may be nothing wrong with public art in a historic setting such as downtown Franklin, it needs to compliment the setting, not overwhelm it,” Smith’s letter said.

“With so much exterior preservation now complete in our historic downtown commercial district, please do not set a precedent that others will seek to follow.”

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at or 317-736-2774.