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Maine State House Dome to Get Shiny New Topping
05/02/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding, the iconic green dome of Maine's State House is about to go through a metamorphosis. And when it re-emerges from restoration sometime in October, the dome will be a brilliant copper color reflecting the morning sun on its shiny new surface, just as it did when it was constructed in 1909. But as AJ Higgins reports, time - and the elements - will eventually have their way once again.

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Over the next six months, the dome's familiar green hue will undergo a complete transformation, as workmen replace the structure's leaky metal sheathing with shiny new sheets of copper. And as part of the $1.3 million restoration project, the Lady of Wisdom who graces the dome's top is also having a little work done to freshen up her 105-year-old profile.

"Well this is a once in a lifetime opportunity - I mean, clearly, this happens only once every century," says Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth.

Shettleworth will tell you that the renaissance-inspired, tempiatto-style dome was erected as part of the State House expansion that begain in 1909. It was a popular architectural design during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And at its pinnacle sits a 12 foot-statue of Minerva - also known as The Lady of Wisdom - who will also be re-gilded and fitted with a new LED lamp for the torch she holds in her upright raised hand.

While those changes will be eye-catching, Shettleworth says they will pale next to the new copper sheathing on the dome's exterior that replaces the oxidized green patina that Mainers have come to associate with the state Capitol. Shettleworth says the 105-year-old photographs he's seen offer a glimpse of the original dome.

"And even though they're black and white, you can get gradations of color," he says. "And you really get a sense of the sheen on the copper when it was originally the copper color back in 1910. And then if you trace the photographs through old postcards through the 1920s, 30s and 40s into more recent times, you see it becoming green and you see the color change," Shettleworth said.

"From my own professional vantage point here, looking at the dome is an inspiration. It will be historic," says Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

Few state employees have the view of the dome that Mills enjoys. The 185-foot structure literally fills her sixth floor window in the adjacent Cross State Office Building. Mills and others are, of course, curious about how the building will look with a shiny copper roof. And they are aware that it won't stay that way forever, but will eventually oxidize to a bronze to a dark brown and then back to the familiar green patina.

Barbara McDade, director of the Bangor Public Library, has overseen the replacement of that building's ornate copper roof that was unveiled last month. She says visitors to the library are thrilled with the shiny new finish, but the roof gets a little less shiny every day.

"We are all surprised how fast it has already started to fade to the color of a penny," McDade says. "We thought it would be shiny for a little bit longer, but already it is darkening and isn't as shiny as a couple of weeks ago. People haven't been disappointed but lots of jokes that we should go up with Brasso and shine it once a week - that's not going to happen."

Of course, copper wasn't the only material available to the state. David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council that is funding the restoration, says while lawmakers believe that appearances are important, they decided not to go so far as Massachusetts did in restoring its State House dome.

"The alternative to that would be to gild the dome, with copper overlain by gold flecks," Boulter says. "And that's something that was not deemed to be cost effective at this point, given the state of the economy."

And so it will be copper and then bronze and then brown. And for those who miss the old green dome, Boulter says they'll just have to wait - about 40 years.

Photo: A.J. Higgins

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