AUGUSTA, Maine — On a staging that reaches 200 feet in the air, carpenters, coppersmiths, engineers and other workers are making historic changes to the exterior of the State House dome.
The effort, which involves replacing more than 7,000 square feet of copper sheeting that covers the dome, is expected to continue through October and will cost about $1.3 million. The Maine Legislature had set aside funds on a regular basis until there was enough money to complete the renovation.
Lawmakers on the Legislative Council are determining how to distribute the old copper sheeting and are devising a plan to offer the copper to artists for jewelry or sculptures or to others who simply want a memento of the building at which they’ve worked or have marveled.
David Boulter, executive director of Maine’s Legislative Council, the entity tasked with maintaining the State House and its grounds, said the interest in the project, which will dramatically change the way the dome looks for about the next 30 years, has been intense.
This week, Boulter took small groups of lawmakers and others who did not have a fear of heights on short tours of the work site.
Boulter, whose duties include overseeing legislative staff, issuing security badges and ensuring the building’s general care, said he was amazed at the scope of the work and the professionalism of the crews completing it.
While his job involves a “wide variety of tasks,” Boulter said, “this is the most fun. It’s so tangible, you can see the progress of the work.”
The staging made up of 100 tons of steel was installed by contractors in late March and is scheduled to be removed by Nov. 1.
The project also involves re-gilding an 18-foot statue of the “Lady of Wisdom,” which is perched atop the dome. To complete that work, crews will cover the statue with a thin foil of gold, which has slowly worn off over the years.
Once complete, the statute will be be noticeably brighter from below, and the exquisite detail on the statue will be preserved, Boulter said, although at 200 feet above the ground, it’s difficult for visitors to appreciate the artwork.
Boulter said weather and strikes from hail have damaged the copper, especially on the topmost portions that are more exposed, and holes have developed, causing leaks into the building.
The seams between the copper sheets, which were first installed when the building was expanded and renovated in 1909 and 1910, also have caused problems for the underlying steel and concrete structure of the dome.
And while other parts of the building have been renovated over the past two decades, including a full restoration of the interior of the State House and portions of the exterior from 1 998 to 2001, the exterior renovation of the dome is the most visible work on the building since it was expanded more than 100 years ago.
The building was expanded in the early 1900s to replicate the U.S. Capitol, in a move that was sweeping state capitols across the country.
But Maine, unlike many other states, decided not to gild its dome with gold. Boulter said historical renderings of the building show it both with a golden dome and a brownish, copper-colored dome, but none of the earliest renderings show the greenish color of oxidized copper.
Boulter said he was unsure whether the color was ever an intended effect or just the result of time.
What is certain is that the building, once the staging starts to come down later this year, will not look the same again for at least 30 years.