State House acorn to be replaced Dry rot ends 208 years of service

volunteers to craft successor

July 30, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

After 208 years crowning the Annapolis skyline, the decorative acorn at the top of the Maryland State House dome will have to be replaced, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announced yesterday.

Townsend, who chairs the State House Trust, said the state's Department of General Services has concluded that there is no practical way to restore the 5-foot-8-inch-tall wooden structure and its supporting pedestal.

"In order to restore it, we would have to take out so much of the wood and replace it with epoxy that we would have to destroy it in order to save it," said Eugene R. Lynch, secretary of general services.

Officials discovered this spring that the acorn, which tops the nation's oldest state capitol still in active use, is shot through with dry rot. Since then, state architects and engineers have examined the acorn using sophisticated gamma ray imaging technology to assess its condition.

To fashion a new acorn, Townsend said, the state plans to enlist 30 volunteer woodworkers from across the state to make pieces of the new acorn from cypress donated by Maryland's lumber industry. Townsend and Lynch, a Cabinet secretary who can actually make cabinets, will produce the 31st piece.

The new acorn is expected to be installed this fall.

Plans call for the old acorn to be put on display at an undetermined location -- perhaps under the dome.

Lynch said the state has to move quickly because the 28-foot wrought-iron lightning rod that runs through the acorn and pedestal is seriously unstable and could topple in sustained winds of 80 mph or more.

"It's been swaying back and forth in the wind for 200 years. Metal gets tired," Lynch said. He said the original lightning rod, which doubles as a flagpole, would be kept in place and covered with a steel sheath.

Lynch said the lightning rod, designed to Benjamin Franklin's specifications, has effectively protected the State House from fire for more than 200 years. The acorn and pedestal, now seriously weakened, are part of its supporting structure.

Maryland politicians have been wheeling and dealing under the acorn since 1788, when Annapolis builder Joseph Clark completed the exterior of a dome that is regarded as one of the engineering marvels of the late 18th century. The dome replaced the leaky original roof of the State House, built between 1772 and 1779.

Removing the old acorn and replacing it will be a daunting engineering task. Lynch estimated the weight of the acorn, perched about 180 feet above the ground, at 700 to 800 pounds.

Officials are not yet sure how they will get the acorn off the rod. If contractors can't lift it off in one piece, they will cut out a vertical wedge and slide it off the pole, Lynch said. He acknowledged that the acorn could be damaged in the process.

Once the old acorn is off the rod, it probably will be slid onto a platform, from which it could be picked up by helicopter, Lynch said. The lightning rod will be secured with wires until the new acorn can be installed.

Constructing the new acorn also will be an intricate process. The state plans to fit together 31 horizontal "slices" of cypress wood -- the same material used in the original. Each slice will be slipped over the rod individually. Then the entire acorn will be topped with a wooden cap, which will be made by a contractor, and encased in copper sheeting and painted gold -- its original color.

During a news conference yesterday, Townsend reduced early estimates of the cost of replacing the acorn from $200,000 to $84,000.

zTC Part of the saving comes from the plan to use volunteers.

Lynch, who built models of the new acorn in his home workshop, said he has received an enthusiastic response from the building industry. "To a person, their reaction was, 'I'd love to do this.' "

Townsend called on Maryland woodworkers to submit applications to participate in the project, along with samples of their work.

Applications should be sent to Michele T. Rozner, Department of General Services, 301 W. Preston St., Baltimore 21201, by Aug. 9.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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