Sharp-eyed observers might have noticed that the golden dome of Vermont’s State House has begun to look a bit shabby. Its lustrous gold leaf finish now looks slightly worn and patchy. And there are flaws and cracks in the white-painted cylindrical “drum” that supports the gold cap.
It’s been 40 years since the dome was last gilded, and the best-known symbol of our state has begun to show its age. But help is on the way. The Vermont Legislature has approved $1.6 million in bond-raised funds to repair and renovate the dome.
Like the building it crowns, that gold topper has a quirky, fascinating history.
For one thing, although the State House proper is made of granite, the dome that sits atop it is made of wood. From the inside, it looks a lot like a round barn. The dome’s crown is sheathed in copper, and for the first several years of its existence, it was not gold, but red.
Just why that was so requires a quick trip into the building’s architectural history. Its overall style is Renaissance Revival, a popular architectural fashion in the 1850s. And Renaissance buildings in Europe often have red tile roofs. But tile roofs do not fare well in Vermont’s northern climate, so the builders sheathed their dome in copper, and imitated the look of tile by painting it red.
That lasted for almost 50 years. By the beginning of the 20th century, architectural fashions had changed again. Colonial Revival was the new fashion, and the Boston State House dome had been gilded to go along with that style. Vermont followed suit in 1906. Off came the dome’s red paint and on went the gold leaf — which is incredibly thin. The amount of gold required to gild the dome, if rendered as a block of the precious metal, would be smaller than a deck of cards.
There are many stories associated with the dome. Why is it not expressed in any significant way inside the building? Do the ghosts of reporters long gone haunt the former State House press room, the “Crow’s Nest,” once located right under the dome? And what about the graffiti collection on the dome’s wooden inside walls?
On top of the dome stands a female statue holding a symbolic sheaf of grain. She’s an allegorical representation of Agriculture, sometimes referred to as the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres. And she too, is ready for some repair. Actually, she needs more than repair. Some core drillings have disclosed that Agriculture is quietly decaying. It’s likely she’ll need to be replaced.
And that raises an interesting question.
The original “Agriculture,” placed upon the State House when it was built, was a wooden statue carved by the famous 19th Century sculptor, Larkin Mead. It was a fine work of art, but because it was wooden, by the 1930s, it too had become rotten and had to be replaced. This was during the Great Depression, and money was scarce. So to keep costs down, then-Sgt.-at-Arms Dwight Dwinell volunteered to carve a replacement. Dwinell’s replica, nowhere near as refined as the Larkin Mead original, is the statue that stands atop the State House today.