State House's historic dome reveals secrets during restoration

Restoring and repainting the Annapolis landmark is a lesson in reading — and preserving — the past

  • This is a view of the State House Dome covered by mesh netting during the restoration.
This is a view of the State House Dome covered by mesh netting… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gabe…)
August 19, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

It's brilliant and blustery atop the tallest building in Annapolis, a bank of white clouds scudding quickly across the sky. John Greenwalt Lee leans against a temporary railing, gazing down with fondness on the town he calls home.

A few blocks to the northeast, the dome of the Naval Academy Chapel looms far above the street. Lee helped renovate it in 1999, rappelling out a window to apply chemicals to the copper to bring out its historic-looking green.

A little to the west, the spire of St. Anne's Episcopal Church towers above downtown. Lee helped with a structural survey of the building.

In a way, those jobs were just steppingstones to the architectural conservator's current venture: helping restore the wooden dome that has adorned the Maryland State House since 1789.

"I've been working my way up," he says, laughing. "Who wouldn't want to work on the State House? It doesn't get any more historic than this."

Since May, Lee, 61, has been lead consultant to a team of professionals who are removing failing paint, restoring original windows and planning to leave the dome with the sort of protective coat that will keep it safe from the ravages of weather for years to come.

The Maryland Historical Trust and the Maryland Department of General Services are carrying out the $787,000 project, which is slated to last through October.

Talk with Lee or his partners, and you'll learn that the paint issues alone reflect a problem that dogs nearly every similar project: Modern materials are often the wrong ones to use when restoring old buildings.

But to Lee, the job is also an opportunity — a chance to scrutinize the past and figure out what people were doing right at the time.

"Buildings are like books," he says, a stiff wind flapping his shirt on a platform about 200 feet above the traffic on State Circle. "They tell us everything we need to know about them, as long as we read them properly. This has been a project of surprises."

Base level

It's late on an August morning when Lee and Sam Cook, a mustachioed man with a limp left over from his college football days, greet a visitor at the foot of the scaffolding, ready to offer a tour.

Cook, the Annapolis regional director for the DGS, brims with thoughts about the job he has been helping supervise for four months.

The scaffolding alone took the general contractor, Coakley Williams Inc. of Gaithersburg, a month to design and build, Cook says, bounding up the first few steps.

"It's the finest scaffolding job I've ever seen," Lee agrees.

And they're on their way up to the dome's lowest level: a white, eight-sided drum that measures 40 feet high and 40 feet in diameter and features one arch-topped window in the center of each side.

We've always known plenty about the State House itself. Builders started work on it in 1772 and finished it about 10 years later. It served as the nation's capital between 1783 and 1784, and the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris there in 1784, ending the Revolutionary War.

Shortly after that, a local builder, Joseph Clark, was hired to add some grandeur. He devised a unique wooden dome that would tower 121 feet above the State House roof. He finished the exterior in 1788, and it has dominated the Annapolis skyline ever since.

As the decades passed and sun, snow, rain and wind battered his creation, those charged with maintaining the dome repainted it numerous times. But climbing its steep vertical sides was so cumbersome that few had a chance to study its structure.

Starting four or five years ago, that changed.

Officials of Cook's DGS, which takes care of the building, had long since seen paint peeling off the structure — a problem that could expose the structure to significant damage. In 2007, they dispatched Lee to climb the dome's first tier and take samples.

In many ways, what he found astonished him.

Modern historians knew that Clark had built the dome's exterior out of old-growth cypress, one of the world's most water-resistant woods. But they never imagined that nearly every cypress shingle in the building dated back to its origin — almost none had ever been replaced.

"Several layers of paint were failing, but the materials and craftsmanship of the building were remarkable," Lee says.

There was more. When he pulled a shingle loose, the conservator noticed it was held in place by handmade nails — a sort not made after the year 1800. "The joinery [in the structure] was wood, but all the hardware had been made by blacksmiths," he says.

And the frames surrounding the arch-topped windows? They had suffered virtually no damage in more than two centuries. The original builders, Lee saw, had made the flashing atop the frames out of iron, then coated it with red tin oxide, a material once used to seal the bottoms of boats.

"You can't get the stuff anymore, of course," he says. "It works too well."

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