Hidden Maryland: State House dome

The latest installment of Hidden Maryland goes to the State House dome, where only a select few can see the spectacular views and centuries-old signatures.

September 03, 2013|By Erin Cox | The Baltimore Sun

A two-inch-thick steel door secured by a padlock hides an exclusive gem of Maryland history.

Only 10 people have keys. Nine of them work to protect the governor.

Behind that door, more than 140 narrow wooden steps wind upward to a spectaular vista that has been enjoyed by former U.S. presidents, Maryland’s contemporary political elite and the scores of workers who used 18th century technology to hoist massive beams nearly 200 feet in the air to build the dome of the Maryland State House.

The iconic Annapolis landmark -- the largest wooden dome in the country -- has dominated the city's skyline for more than 200 years. But to visit it, you must be somebody or know somebody.

"I get the same feeling every time I walk up here," said state historian Elaine Rice Bachmann, lifting her gaze to admire signatures of long-dead craftsman, their names written in paint on the inner walls of the dome. "Even the penmanship is something you don’t see any more. No one has been on that wall for a hundred years."

Higher up, in the atrium that lets out onto the balcony of the dome, are more recent scribbles. One for "Paris Glendening" is inauthentic, of course, since the former governor spells his first name with two R's. Legislators, aides and interns have inked their name onto upper walls.

"We don't learn much from that," quipped Bachmann as she climbed, "except who came up here with pens in their pockets."

One signature belongs to Ellen Sauerbrey, Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1994 and 1998, who visited on her last day as a state legislator. "I can remember just being awed to think that this structure was surviving, and was hidden," Sauerbrey recalled of that day. "The real piece of history is not where people can see it."

When this dome was finished in 1787, the city was a power center in the newly formed country that boasted 13 states, united.

"It was really one of the most important buildings in the country," Bachmann said. "They didn't do something quick and easy. They wanted something that was a testament of this new country."

This was the second dome placed atop the Maryland State House. The first was too flat for water to run off it, made of copper and altogether unsuitable. It creaked and leaked less than a decade after it was constructed.

That dome was architecturally inconsistent with the rest of the building -- so unsightly that future president Thomas Jefferson criticized it in 1766 as seemingly from antiquity, writing to a friend that the first dome, "judging from its form and appearance, was built in the year one."

Jefferson and fellow future president James Madison returned to Annapolis in 1790 and spent three hours with a friend atop the newly finished dome, reportedly looking at the houses from a birds-eye view and gossiping with a local about the people who lived inside them, said Bachmann.

A "Thomas Jefferson" signature that intrigued historians turned out to be a fake, said Maryland State Archivist Dr. Edward Pappenfuse.

The dome was designed by Joseph Clark, a London-trained architect whose brother owned an Annapolis bookstore, and took three years to construct.

Hulking cypress trees were dragged out of surrounding swamps, which today are suburban neighborhoods. Historians suspect much of that work was done by slaves lent to the effort by patriotic landowners.

The entire dome was fitted together in the air as a ship would be -- without any nails, the interlocking beams pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"If you can imagine what it was like, it's incredible to think about," Bachmann said. "It's an enormous amount of labor to get all the wood in one place."

The stairs wind between the outer dome, the one pictured in postcards, and an inner dome that serves as the vaulted ceiling above the State House's rotunda. Bachmann, who is in charge of interpreting the history of the State House, doesn't have her own key to this inner sanctum. Outside of the people on the governor's executive protection force, only Sam Cook, director of the Annapolis Public Buildings and Grounds Division with the Department of General Services, has a key.

Cook threw open a door at the top of the climb. "It's just a gorgeous view," he said. "From the very top, you can see the Key Bridge."

Demand is high for this sprawling panorama of Maryland's historic capital city, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Chesapeake Bay. Brides want wedding photos snapped. Scavenger hunt organizers ask to hide objects there. Producers have sought to film ghost stories. Veterans have inquired about holding their military resignations there.

"We have to turn down a lot of people," he said.

He did escort the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a photographer, to the dome in November 2007, when her husband was in Annapolis for a Middle East peace talk held at the Naval Academy.

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