The History of the Golden Dome

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

Click here to order a copy of the book.

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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.”

Journalism Symposium Update: Cartoons and Video

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On October 24, the Friends of the Vermont State House with the Vermont Humanities Council and other supporters, hosted a day-long journalism symposium. More than 200 symposium attendees filled the House of Representatives chamber and galleries for the event. Videos of the entire program can be accessed here.

One of the symposium's backers was The Center for Cartoon Studies, a school based in White River Junction that teaches the art of graphic narration and cartooning in all its many forms. They graciously contributed the services of Eva Sturm Gross, who provided these graphic notes of the day's events. They were done at the State House during the program and posted in the cafeteria during the day. 

Sabina's Letter to the Friends

Governor Scott with Sabina and her copy Intimate Grandeur, the State House history. 

Governor Scott with Sabina and her copy Intimate Grandeur, the State House history. 

 Each year a small group of young Vermonters in the eighth grade who are interested in public affairs are selected to work as legislative pages in the Vermont State House. Serving as a page for members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and various legislative offices offers a unique opportunity to observe the workings of the legislature and to witness firsthand the often historic events in Montpelier. 

Many Vermont politicians, including members of the current legislature, got their start working as pages. Between 125 and 150 applications are received each year, and only a small group is chosen from those applications. 

One of those chosen to serve as a legislative page this year was fourteen-year-old Sabina Brochu of Williston, VT. Recently, after receiving her first paycheck, young Sabina wrote a letter to Friends of the Vermont State House, the non-profit organization dedicated to conservation and restoration of the capitol building. 

In her letter, Sabina wrote in part, “After I got my first paycheck, I decided I would donate some of it to you because I think the State House is a wonderful place and I think that everyone deserves to see its best.” She continued, “I hope my donation helps to keep the State House beautiful for many years to come.” 

The Board of Trustees for Friends of the Vermont State House were so moved and impressed by Sabina’s generosity, they arranged for a private meeting between this legislative page and Governor Phil Scott. 

At that time, members of the Friends Trustees made a special presentation of its recently published book, Intimate Grandeur, to Sabina. With a signed copy of Intimate Grandeur, the Friends Trustees told Sabina this 120-page commemorative publication, complete with exquisite photographs and illustrations of notable paintings and drawings, is a celebration of the historic seat of Vermont’s state government. 

The Friends of the Vermont State House sees the full potential of the State House and is committed to conservation of its historical integrity, as well as promotion of civics education and public appreciation for the building and its collections. For more information on Friends of the Vermont State House and how you can be involved, go to https://vtstatehouse.org, or email info@vtstatehousefriends.org. 

Vermont students who are interested in serving as a legislative page in 2019 should go to  https://legislature.vermont.gov/the-state-house/civic-education/become-a-legislative-page/.