September 19, 2011

Dome blog barely scratched the colorful surface

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Dome blog barely scratched the colorful surface

State House dome in 1995 from a helicopter by Tom Darden.

State House dome in 1995 from a helicopter by Tom Darden.

My blog a month ago on the paint job on the State House dome barely scratched the surface of the colorful controversy.

I reported then that while painters had discovered the original color of parts of the dome were yellow (called “straw” in one of the original 18th century designs), the state was going to repaint it white as it had been for at least 100 years.

In Sunday’s Baltimore Sun, Jonathan Pitts went at great lengths to talk to the historic preservationists who want to restore the original colors to the iconic dome.

Unfortunately, in the online version of the story, it’s a bit difficult to find the photo illustration that dominated the front page of the print edition, showing the State House in yellow. But it was shared in a photo gallery inside.

Online, there was also a lengthy sidebar giving a tour of the dome that wasn’t in the print edition – at the least not the one delivered in Columbia.

But the sidebar – and the documentation from the Maryland State Archives – undermines one of the key assertions at the top of the lead article. It said those yellow and blue colors were what George Washington saw when he resigned his commission in 1783 to the Congress meeting in Annapolis under the Articles of Confederation, and when that same Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris there the following year.

The problem is the exterior of the dome as we see it today was not completed until four years later. So Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers probably just saw the crummy little cupola that the dome replaced.

So the State House then as now is a work in progress. It is not just a historic building frozen in time, like the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg or the beautiful old Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia  — the building long-called Independence Hall.

The folks in charge of the State House seems to love its history about as much as anyone, but as a building that’s been used for many functions over the years, there is not just one period that marks it as “historic.” The old Senate chamber, where Gen. Washington acknowledged the pre-eminence of the civilian government, has long been under restoration to how it looked in 1783. (Exactly when will that be finished?)

And in the last two years, the old House chamber has been refurbished for $3.1 million to how it looked in the late 19th century.

The current chambers of the House of Delegates and Senate, with those impressive steps leading up to massive doors, were added in 1903 to what was then the back of the State House.

By then the dome had apparently been white for 60 years, whether to save money or to conform to architectural styles.

Apparently, the preservationists will continue to wage their largely invisible fight. But the state officials with the power have already decided. The dome’s been painted white for 180 years, and white it shall remain.

–Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com