The news Ridout found at the top of the dome was not all bad. He was astonished at how much original building material was still in place and that much was in good condition.
The wooden structure of the dome, which was built from 1785 to 1788 to replace an earlier structure, is actually in "phenomenally good condition," he said.
During a recent tour of the State House with Ridout and Papenfuse, most of the public areas appeared to be in good repair.
The Tiffany glass ceilings glimmer in the new House and Senate chambers, both part of the annex built in 1904-1905. The marble shines in the hallways where Thomas Jefferson trod when the Continental Congress met there in 1783-1784.
One conspicuous exception is the Old Hall of Delegates, part of the original structure.
Now known as the Calvert Room, the former chamber has a distinctly shabby appearance. Some of the windows are cracked and it is cluttered with unsightly fake-wood tables and government-issue chairs.
"It's been blanded out by years of government," said Ridout.
While Papenfuse said the room should be restored, he emphasized that isn't nearly as great a priority as dealing with the acorn or the leakage problems. "The government is greatly constrained by the lack of public funds," he said. "It means we cannot do everything that ought to be done."
According to Ridout, what the State House needs now is not so much renovation as reflection.
"We've never done a comprehensive evaluation of the building to see what's there," he said. He said such an "historical structural analysis" could cost $500,000 and take two years to complete.
Whether political leaders will be willing to wait that long is questionable. After all, it's their offices that are leaking. "It's an old building. I get nervous every time I get on the elevator," said Rawlings.
As they become more involved in the issue, elected officials are likely to bring their own priorities to the table. Rawlings, for instance, is concerned about a lack of public meeting space for committee hearings in the Assembly office buildings.
Preservationists are grateful that political leaders care about the state of the State House, but they get nervous when they hear them talk of renovation.
Willie Graham, curator of architecture at Colonial Williamsburg, said the urge to renovate is "well-meaning," but dangerous.
"It inevitably leads to a loss of original fabric and the integrity of LTC what's there," said Graham, who assisted Ridout in evaluating the condition of the acorn.
Graham pointed to the example of the Charleston County Courthouse in South Carolina. He said authorities there have conducted extensive renovations every 25 to 50 years, making so many changes that much of the historic flavor has been lost.
"Because of that, the building is not as significant as the one in Annapolis," he said.
Pub Date: 6/12/96