Repairs in session at the State House Renovation: The nation's oldest working capitol is undergoing a $5 million overhaul while remaining open for workers and tourists.

May 15, 1998|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN STAFF

The silver has been packed away and the scaffolding is in place for the most extensive renovation of the Maryland State House in 50 years - a $5 million effort to renew the 18th-century landmark while keeping it running as a tourist site and busy workplace.

Until September 2000, contractors will upgrade nearly every facet of the nation's oldest capitol still in use as a hub of state government.

Renovations to the 210-year-old white dome, one of Maryland's most enduring symbols, have begun. Windows are being taken out so that chipping lead paint can be removed and broken panes replaced.

Early steps in the renovation also will include replacing the slate roofs on the original building, constructed from 1772 to 1779, and on the annex housing the Senate and House chambers, added in 1902.

Workers also will repair cracked granite on the outdoor stairway, installing sprinklers to protect the interior from fire and replacing an ineffective "bird deterrent system."

Next year's construction plan is more ambitious, calling for renovations to the heating, electrical, telecommunications, plumbing, elevator and security systems. The marble will be cleaned, and the interior will be repainted, including the inside of the dome.

While all this work goes on, the building must continue to function as the year-round workplace of about 120 people, including the governor, his aides, legislative staff members and a small crew of reporters.

Eugene R. Lynch, secretary of general services, said renovating the historic building would be a daunting challenge even if it could be closed to the public.

"The problem is magnified by the fact it is uncloseable. You cannot close the building," he said.

Trenton S. Vickery, project manager for the Department of General Services, said that nearly every State House worker will have to endure some inconvenience. Gov. Parris N. Glendening will have to vacate his office when the sprinkler system is installed there, though Vickery said the department would try to accommodate his schedule.

One group that will be minimally inconvenienced by the renovation is the 188-member General Assembly. Repairs will stop from January to April in 1999 and 2000 during the legislature's annual 90-day session because, Lynch said, the building is "simply too intensely used."

Unlike past renovations, the project will not involve reconfiguration of the building's layout. Officials said that when the work is done, visitors will see a brighter, cleaner State House without the wear and tear visible today.

The State House, like most historic buildings of its size, is almost always in the midst of restoration work. Last year, for instance, the rotted wooden "acorn" atop the dome was replaced.

But the last time the building underwent a comprehensive renovation was in 1947, when the dome was found to be in such rickety condition that Gov. William Preston Lane was briefly evacuated from his office. The cost: about $609,000.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the current renovation will be to accommodate the hordes of tourists who visit the State House when the legislature is not in session. The state doesn't keep a definitive tally of the number of visitors to the capitol, but at least 200,000 people stop at the building's tourism office or take a state-sponsored tour each year, said visitor's center supervisor Corinne Shulimson.

That number does not include the thousands of visitors who take tours sponsored by private companies. "We get tours from all over the country and actually from all over the world," she said.

Before last week, state officials were discussing a plan that essentially would have closed the State House as a tourist site for most of the next two years. State archivists were planning to pack up all the historic exhibits and to put paintings into storage during the renovation. Some items, including the silver service from the battleship USS Maryland and the swords of George's Washington aide-de-camp, Tench Tilghman, have been stored.

Mimi Calver, director of exhibits for the Maryland State Archives, said officials this week scrapped the idea of a complete shutdown. They plan to remove displays and artwork on a rotating basis as the work moves to different parts of the building. Tour groups would be able to view the State House but could find some of its historic points - such as the Old Senate Chamber where Washington tendered his resignation as commander of American forces in 1783 - closed off for renovation. The enormous 1859 painting of that event by Edwin White will have to be removed or encased in a protective #F wooden box.

This year, while the sprinklers are being installed, the disruption will not be serious, officials said. But next year's interior renovation will force the closing of large sections of the building. Vickery said the State House occasionally might have to be closed to tourists. "There's going to be some times when there's not a lot to see as far as artwork is concerned," he said.

Lynch said he expects to keep enough of the building open to make it worth a visit. Some tourists, he said, might enjoy watching the renovation.

"I'll bet you, with some schoolchildren, they'd be more interested in that than the other things," he said. "'Wow! Look at that scaffolding.'"

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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