New home for special dome

Skylight: An ornate Tiffany fixture that used to top a courthouse will be refurbished and will adorn the new state Senate building.

May 17, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

For 26 years, the ornate Tiffany skylight that once adorned the old Court of Appeals building in Annapolis has seen neither sun nor sky.

Sen. Robert R. Neall, who remembers its brilliance in its original location, thought it was a shame that the century-old dome was tucked away in the ceiling of a legislative hearing room with only artificial lighting to illuminate it.

Largely as a result of Neall's efforts, the skylight began its journey back to architectural prominence yesterday as craftsmen began disassembling the stained-glass artwork for restoration and repair. When it returns to Annapolis in a few months, it will find a place in the sun atop the Senate office building under construction near the State House.

"This thing is going to be absolutely gorgeous," said Neall, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who has been overseeing the office project for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The skylight is a late addition to the design of the $24 million Senate building, which will replace the cramped and visibly aging James Senate Office Building. The relocation started as a "what if" in the mind of Neall, who said he was never happy with the placement of "one of Maryland's greatest art treasures" in the Legislative Services Building on Lawyers Mall.

Neall said a feasibility study found that the dome could be worked into the office building's design at a reasonable cost. Waters Craftsmen Inc., a historical-restoration business in Front Royal, Va., was hired for the painstaking work of taking the skylight apart, restoring it and installing it atop the rotunda of the new building.

A difficult move

The dome is one of six large artworks that Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the stained-glass artist from the jewelry store family, designed for the Annapolis government complex when the 18th-century State House was expanded to its current size from 1902 to 1906.

The best known of those works are the skylights in the House of Delegates and Senate chambers in the State House.

The one being taken apart yesterday was the focal point of the rotunda in the Court of Appeals building, which stood across from the State House from 1904 until it was razed in 1974.

The Tiffany dome measures about 20 feet across and is 8 to 10 feet deep, Neall estimated. "I don't know how many Tiffany lamps you could make with this thing, but it would be a bunch of them," he said.

Foreman Ben Camden oversaw a crew from Waters Craftsmen as they began removing the glass in 49 sections, each made up of hundreds of pieces. In the second-floor crawl space above the Joint Hearing Room, Sean Blackburn scraped away putty that held the panels in place. Roscoe Mutispaugh did the same from the room's interior.

When the putty was removed from a panel, the bolts holding it in place were cut. The workers gently lifted the panel out and packed it into a foam-insulated crate.

While the crew did its work, Neall took the concept of legislative oversight to new extremes, hovering over the project and absorbing every detail.

"I'm a little nervous about it because this is a wonderful work of art," he said. "I don't think I'm going to sleep until it's up there where it belongs."

While Neall listened, Camden pointed out places where the braces had bent or the glass had sagged or cracked. The company will make those repairs at its Front Royal workshop, taking care to keep the skylight looking as much as possible the way it did originally.

Camden said that for stained glass nearly 100 years old, the skylight is "in very good shape."

Neall said it's important to restore the dome, which is now recessed in a 20-foot ceiling, to as pristine a condition as possible. Visitors to the Senate building will be 60 feet below it when on the ground floor but will be able to see it up close when they go to the fourth floor.

"I just want to make sure that when someone can get within eight to 10 feet of seeing the detail, it looks nice," Neall said.

The building is scheduled to open in November.

Camden said the crew will need four more days to remove the panels. After that, it will take a week and a half to disassemble and pack the steel structure that holds the glass in place.

Restoration work will then take several weeks before the dome can be installed atop the Senate building sometime this summer.

Louis Tiffany was one of three sons of Charles Tiffany, founder of the Tiffany & Co. jewelry business. Uninterested in the family business, he established Tiffany Studios to revive the all-but-lost art of producing stained-glass decorative work.

Tiffany's creations won fame during the late 19th century, helping to launch the Art Nouveau movement. He won commissions to produce windows and ceilings for the White House, and for the homes of tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Maryland State Archives could find no records of what the state paid for the dome, but the price for the five State House skylights was $3,257.

An unusual piece

Alice Frelinghuysen, curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said the Annapolis works were produced when Tiffany was at his creative peak. "It was a period when he was really experimenting and pursuing one different medium after another," she said.

Frelinghuysen said Tiffany had a thriving business doing work for hotels, commercial buildings, theaters, churches and colleges.

The piece being disassembled yesterday is unusual because it is a dome and because it is in a government building, she said.

Frelinghuysen said she has never seen pictures of the dome and couldn't comment on the quality of the Annapolis pieces because Tiffany's work has never been thoroughly cataloged.

"I'm delighted that they're interested in preserving them and putting them where they will be seen," she said.

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