In nation's oldest working capitol, 1960s pipe system needs overhaul

State House to close for repairs in 2008

November 06, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

The Maryland State House, a national historic landmark and the oldest capitol still in legislative use, will close from April until the 2009 General Assembly session for major renovations to its 40-year-old internal piping system, state officials said yesterday.

More than 60 state employees and elected officials will move out temporarily, including the governor, Senate president and House speaker, and preservationists will take careful steps to safeguard the artifacts and trappings that make the State House one of the most visited tourist attractions in Maryland.

Built from 1772 to 1779 - construction was delayed by the onset of the Revolutionary War - the State House played host to a number of momentous events when Annapolis was the capital of a fledgling United States in 1783 and 1784. These include George Washington's resignation as commander in chief of the Continental Army on Dec. 23, 1783, and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war on Jan. 14, 1784. And its giant dome, which looms over this quaint capital city, stands as the largest wooden structure of its kind in the United States.

The renovation project, which was initiated 10 years ago, has been delayed since 1998. Now the pipes, which run throughout the building largely for heating and cooling, are in danger of rupturing, according to officials with the Department of General Services.

"This is a building that is in serious need of major overhaul, and it is by far the most important historic structure in the state," said state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse. "It deserves a very careful and well-coordinated program with regard to its care and preservation."

State officials said it was too soon to say where employees would move, not to mention the handful of reporters who work in the State House's bottom floor. Staff members for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike E. Busch would likely move into House and Senate offices a short walk away from the State House, though the Senate president seemed surprised by the news yesterday.

"I haven't seen any proposal for that, but they're going to have to come up with a very good reason for why we close the State House," Miller said.

One possibility for the governor's office would be to have some of his staff of 40 work temporarily out of the William Donald Schaefer building in Baltimore, said a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The need for the repairs has intensified as the pipes have grown more corroded in the past decade, said Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the Department of General Services. A 2001 report from a testing firm showed the pipe wall thickness was down by 20 percent to 54 percent and would need to be replaced within five to six years.

"This much-needed work, which has been delayed several times, cannot be delayed any longer to avoid the possibility of ruptured pipes and water damage to this historic building," Humphrey said.

Funding for the project was approved in the state's fiscal 2005 capital budget, and Humphrey said he could not detail its cost because it could influence the competitive bidding process, which is under way.

The state has yet to select a contractor, but well before work can begin, Papenfuse and other archivists must take anything of historical significance - a copy of Washington's resignation speech, for instance, now on display in the main hallway - and either move it into secure storage or box it up so it won't be damaged.

"And as we deal with any aspect of structure, we have to clearly and effectively document what is done to the State House," Papenfuse said. He and another archivist were uncertain whether the State House has ever been completely shut down before, although it has been closed to visitors during past renovations.

An annex to the State House was built and torn down in the 1880s, Papenfuse said, and in 1904 and 1905, when the existing annex was built, adding the current legislative chambers in the House and Senate, there was a "tremendous amount of construction," he said. In 1948, the walls were replastered in the State House's main hallway.

"Every time there's been a major repair or renovation, I have no doubt that it was closed to the visitor," he said. "And it's necessary to do so because there's a lot of preparation work to ensure things are done very carefully."

Maryland State House

Oldest state capitol still in legislative use

Built between 1772 and 1779

Served as the U.S. capitol from 1783 to 1784

Its giant dome stands as the largest wooden structure of its kind in the United States

[Source: Web site of the Maryland State Archives]

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