Stains on a 'shrine to democracy' State House may need expensive repairs for leaks in roof

June 12, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's State House, the oldest working capitol building in the United States, is showing signs of serious disrepair and may need an expensive renovation, Glendening administration officials and General Assembly leaders say.

The Annapolis landmark, whose construction began while Maryland was still a British colony, has developed persistent roof leaks that can no longer be dealt with through patchwork repairs, these officials say.

The picturesque building with the soaring white dome last underwent a comprehensive renovation in 1947.

The Glendening administration, fearful of media criticism and a public backlash over the cost, is proceeding cautiously and hoping the matter can be kept out of politics at a time when bipartisanship is in short supply in Annapolis.

The State House Trust, chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, has been quietly preparing an initiative to muster support for a thorough examination of the needs of all the historic buildings in the state government complex in Annapolis.

Legislative leaders contend the need for action is urgent.

"The State House is deteriorating. There are problems with the roofing, and really it needs to be modernized to bring it into the 21st century," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Marylanders must do whatever it takes to preserve "this shrine to democracy."

"It seems every other generation has had to do some major restoration with regard to our State House, and perhaps it's our generation's turn," Miller said.

Evidence of deterioration can be seen most clearly in Townsend's ornate office in the original part of the State House, which was built between 1772 and 1779.

Stubborn leaks there have turned the plaster to mush in wet weather and left paint peeling off the wall.

Ugly brown splotches are clearly visible on the walls of the governor's press office, which has had a leakage problem for months.

Judi Scioli, press secretary for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor's office continues to leak despite repairs last year.

Extensive and expensive

Nobody in state government is prepared to put a price tag on the work that would be required. But the bill to taxpayers for a full-scale renovation undoubtedly would run into the tens of millions of dollars.

The renovation of Baltimore's City Hall, a far smaller and younger building, cost $10.5 million before it was complete in 1976.

The potentially high price tag is an understandable concern for an administration that was criticized by at least one Republican delegate for spending a relatively paltry $52,800 on last year's unsuccessful repairs and redecoration of the governor's office.

"When you're spending money on yourself, people are always questioning it. That's why it's important to have a broad-based group supporting it," Townsend said.

"My sense is that this shouldn't be a partisan issue because this is a state treasure."

Robert H. Kittleman, the Howard County legislator who leads the increasingly vocal Republican minority in the House of Delegates, said he is not aware of anything seriously wrong with the State House, though he is concerned about the leaking roof of the House office building across State Circle.

He said the administration has not yet approached him about any renovation initiative, but he did not rule out a bipartisan approach.

"We won't reject something out of hand that makes sense. You've got to look at the condition and the cost," he said.

Assessment costs

For now, state officials will say only that it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars simply to complete a thorough assessment of the condition of the State House alone.

One proposition that is not in dispute in Annapolis is the importance of the State House, a building that inspires genuine affection among the people who live and work in the state capital.

"It's an engineering marvel. It's an architectural marvel of national stature," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist.

Concerns about its condition have been heightened by the recent report that the decorative "acorn" at the top of the 200-foot-tall dome has fallen victim to dry rot and might have to be taken down for renovation or, more likely, replacement.

State officials said the news was disturbing enough to prompt Townsend herself to ascend the vertigo-inspiring heights to inspect the acorn.

The acorn discovery was made by state architectural historian Orlando Ridout when he climbed the dome last month to inspect the hard-to-reach topmost portions. Those areas were made accessible by scaffolding erected to replace broken windows.

Ridout and other state officials became concerned about the dome and roof after finding water damage three years ago in the restored old Senate chamber, where George Washington resigned his Continental Army commission on Dec. 23, 1783.

Durable dome

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