Some want State House dome returned to multicolor scheme

Imagine driving into Annapolis along Rowe Boulevard or sailing into the city's harbor, glancing up toward the tiered State House dome, and seeing that it's colored not in the brick red and Colonial white you've known your entire life, but in lemon gold, muted blue and honey bordering on apricot.

Sound like something from a weird dream? It's not. When George Washington strode inside to resign his commission in 1783, when the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris there, ending the Revolutionary War, and when the British sailed up the Chesapeake to sack Baltimore in 1814, those were the colors they saw.

So found a team of workers as they stripped away paint layers during an $800,000 maintenance project this summer.

The discovery sparked a debate that has been raging in Annapolis, pitting preservationists against each other: When workers get to the repainting stage of the seven-month project, which look should they give it: cozy Americana or radical pastel?

Some said it would be ill-advised, even rash, to employ the crazier colors. "Would it be entertaining? Yes. … We found no way to justify it," says J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, which decides such things.

Others wanted bolder action.

"I've seen this kind of thing my whole career. You look for historical accuracy, you turn up something you don't like, and you lack the courage to follow through on your findings," counters Roger W. Moss, director of the Athenaeum in Philadelphia and one of America's top experts on paint in historic preservation. "Thirty years from now, someone more imaginative will come along, see how silly this all was, and return that dome to its original colors."

For now, the choice has been made: During the next week or so, when workers add the coats that should last for at least three decades, they'll do it in white.

Still, that plan is going over like a bucket of spilled paint with some respected thinkers. Even now, they're trying to make their voices heard.

A dig in the sky

Built between 1772 and 1797 (construction was interrupted by the war, among other things), the Maryland State House came almost right away to symbolize the ideals of a new nation: freedom, the authority of government rather than religion, the right to choose leaders.

For two years, 1783-1784, it served as the nation's capital. 

"This building is not just a state icon. It's a national treasure," says Doug Dawson, the Maryland Department of General Services engineer who has supervised the recent maintenance project.

The dome — actually a stack of hexagons that towers 121 feet above the roof — was added during the 1780s, when the General Assembly decided that such a consequential building needed more grandeur. It has dominated the skyline for 223 years.

A famous Colonial-era artist, Charles Willson Peale, illustrated it in 1788, creating a color engraving that showed the structure in an aspect that strikes the modern eye as bizarre: gold around the base, bluish-gray the next tier higher, honey and gold in alternating order the rest of the way up.

For a structure so familiar, the dome has held a lot of secrets.  

The man who designed it, architect Joseph Clark, was like most builders of his time: He left few records as to how he worked. Its sides are so steep and awkward to climb that workers have scaled it only occasionally over the years, and even then mostly for localized repairs.

"If you wanted to study [the exterior], you've pretty much had to look through binoculars and guess," says Annapolis conservator John Greenwalt Lee.

This summer, that changed. The project's goal was to find failing paint, strip it and add outer layers that would last. In today's preservation world, that meant setting up scaffolding, performing forensic analysis and working up a structural study of sorts — in this case, the first ever done on the dome's whole surface.

Lee, a 38-year veteran in the field who has helped restore some of Annapolis' best-known buildings, scored the job. What he created was basically an archaeological dig in the sky.

First came the paint. Lee used fluorescent microscopy, a relatively new technique in his profession, to distinguish 23 layers. The process allows a preservationist to distinguish layers of paint by their differing reactions to ultra-violet light. (The outer four layers, all done recently and all in latex, were the ones failing.)

Then came the structure. Lee found that virtually all the cypress shingles enclosing the 40-foot-high first layer, the so-called drum, dated back to the 1780s; that every nail was blacksmithed, that the windows, framed in iron, were also original.

"That kind of durability is unheard-of," says Little, whose agency works with Department of General Services and the Maryland State Archives to oversee state buildings.

The project might have gone down as a fascinating educational exercise. But Lee had spotted reproductions of the old Peale image around town, including in the State House itself, and it still intrigued him.

He took strategic samples and fluoresced them. They lit up like Peale's work come to life. "That's when we knew we had something," he says.

Colonial look 

It wasn't that the Peale work — "A Front View of the State-House &c. at ANNAPOLIS, the Capital of MARYLAND" — was some kind of secret. Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse had tracked the piece, acquired it for the state from a private collector in the South, and added it to the archives 32 years earlier.

Officials at the state historical trust didn't necessarily disbelieve Peale's representation, though the absence of physical evidence had been a concern. They often discussed what to do with the information, if anything — usually in private.

"I didn't think the public would give a damn," Little says.

They considered repainting the dome in those colors, but Little says they always came to the same conclusion — that the idea would not meet the U.S. secretary of the interior's Standards for Preservation, the 1970s-era document still considered the bible for such work.

"Preservation [should] reflect a building's continuum over time, through successive occupancies," one of its top criteria reads.

Little conceded that the dome sported the brighter colors for its first 40 years or so, but says that means it has shown white for about 180. And that stretch, too, has featured important history, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement.

When word of Lee's findings spread, though, the director found that more people were interested than he thought. Some were spoiling for a fight.

Take Tom May of Annapolis. The St. John's College professor has chaired the board that oversees the campus' historic buildings, and something about the State House dome has always puzzled him.

"Even as a kid, I'd walk by, look up and ask myself, 'Why do they call it a dome? There's only one curvilinear element, the slate roof. Its lower half is covered in white paint. The rest is hexagons. It's more like a lighthouse."

The original scheme called for twice as much exposed slate, May noticed, a design that more fully exposes the bell — clearly, he says, Clark's intention.

More broadly, he adds, preservationists here, like many elsewhere, have gravitated over the generations toward repaintings in white as a lower-cost, lower-impact common denominator, gradually establishing a vague "Colonial" look that modern conservators are finding is far from accurate.

"There are fine distinctions between the Federal and Georgian styles we have throughout historic Annapolis. The [white] glosses them over, perpetuating an insensitive perspective on a city with a rich and complex history," May says.

A letter he wrote to the Capital newspaper in June made those and other points.

One who read it was Fred Fishback, an Annapolis architect for more than 50 years. He contacted Lee's company and viewed a Photoshopped image of the dome in Clark's hues. Two things jumped out at him right away.

The gold and slate of that design, Fishback says, were clearly intended to evoke the colors of the first Maryland flag, something he has studied extensively. He says the colors in the original scheme were more muted than they might seem, and white was used sparingly, as trim — not "slopped on from base to bell. Those aesthetic choices would have followed an enduring architectural principle: Contrast brings vitality.

To Jeff Halpern, an architect who often advises the City of Annapolis, it's possible to read the secretary of the interior's standards from mulitple points of view, as it is the Bible or the Constitution.

But the early years were probably the dome's most important ones, and with the War of 1812 bicentennial coming up and restoration work under way, it's a rare chance to do what historic preservation does best, he says.

"Few Annapolitans or visitors have any idea that the colors of that time were actually very vibrant. People come here wanting to know what the historic town was, and we have an opportunity as architects interested in history to tell that story clearly and accurately. People would walk away knowing that Colonial citizens were not nearly as drab and dull as we think."

Golden egg

May tried speaking to Little and found the director courteous, even open, but couldn't change his mind.

Among the other points Little raised: At the time Peale made his engraving, the State House lacked the annex that has buttressed it since 1902, so a return to the old colors at this point would create a look that no one ever really saw.

Fishback is still amassing a written argument against the white, a decision he calls "irrational."

"If there had been a secretary of the interior's Guidelines [in 1840], they'd never have changed it to white in the first place," says Fishback, who guesses that change was made to save money. Little disagrees: He believes it was part of a 19th-century trend in which public buildings were painted white as a modern reference to Classical Greek marble.

Changing the color plan at this stage would probably cost all of about $8,000, Fishback says.

Halpern, too, sent a letter to the Capital. "If ever there was a timely opportunity, this is it," he wrote in July, not long before Little and his staff met, considered the matter at length, and unanimously decided on white.

"I love the white; it stands out from a greater distance," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a member of the State House Trust, a board that has the authority to review such decisions. "To me, it's a choice between aesthetics and historical accuracy."

Sometime soon, workers will scale the scaffolding, pull out their brushes and begin applying the outer coats. Those coats will almost surely be white.

Still, a preservationist can dream.

"I understand the decision intellectually, I really do," Halpern says. "But man, this is an opportunity to tell a lively, exuberant story. To me, as someone who loves Annapolis, this seems like the goose that laid the golden egg. I wish we'd nurture that goose."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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