The History of the Golden Dome

from Intimate Grandeur Vermont’s State House*
Nancy Price Graff with David Schutz, State Curator

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In 1906 the legislature appropriated $1,500 to gild the State House dome. The original dome, installed in 1860, was clad in copper, although it had been painted red for many decades. The plan was to sheath the copper with a skin of gold leaf so thin that a quarter of a million sheets of it would make a pile barely an inch high. Despite its fragile quality, the gilt would outlast many coats of paint. Mortensen & Holdensen Co., of Boston, won the bid and did the work during the summer of 1906 even after C. H. Ferrin, sergeant at arms, forbade the firm from constructing unattractive staging around the dome to safeguard the workers. An article that summer in the Vermont Watchman ran the headline, “Workmen Hang on Like Spiders 150 Feet in the Air,” suggesting how entertaining the project was to spectators on the ground as two men worked their way around the dome on short, precariously balanced ladders. Even C. H. Ferrin had to cover his face once when one gilder’s ladder slipped 2 feet to the right.

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Gilding the dome was a laborious process with no margin for error. First the copper was sandpapered and covered with two layers of oil and lead paint. More sandpapering followed, then sizing. Each day the men unrolled a whisper-thin sheet of 23-44 karat gold leaf measuring 30 by 2 1/2 feet and pressed it into place, using both hands. The paints made fire an ever-present danger. Consequently, the dome was well stocked with fire extinguishers, and the workmen were not allowed to smoke. The job took forty-two days, and the gilders were each paid $3 per day. By the time it was completed, Mortensen & Holdensen Co. had lost money. The engineer who had calculated the area of the dome by measuring its interior had failed to take into account the prominent ribs that needed to be covered on the exterior of the dome. But the gilding brilliantly revived the appearance of the State House, which one reporter implied had paled over the years. A Vermont Watchman reporter wrote that the gilding “increases the beauty of the granite structure and is the object of admiration to visitors from away who come to see Vermont’s capitol.”

The gilded dome became such a dominant feature of the State House that it has been kept brilliant through the years by regular regilding in 1921, 1938, 1953-1955, 1962-1963, and 1976. Skyline Engineers, Inc., of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is the most recent company to gild the dome, but the work has not changed substantially after more than a century. Daniel Quinn, president and founder of Skyline Engineers, still depended on ropes, ladders, safety harnesses, and bosun’s chairs that were tied to the balustrade at the foot of the statue Agriculture to protect his gilders. “This is the kind of job you pray for,” Quinn said for a September 26, 1976, article in the Sunday Rutland Herald and the Sunday Times Argus. “I have never worked on a finer state capitol.”