Slayton: Gilding The Dome

Mar 22, 2017

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.

Now, a provision in the Capital Bill that’s currently making its way through the Vermont Legislature provides one-point-six million dollars 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, according to State House curator David Schutz, it looks a lot like a round barn. It’s sheathed in copper, and for the first 35 years of its existence, that dome 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 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 about thirty-five 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 that remains today.

Other stories associated with the dome include why it’s not expressed in any significant way inside the building and whether ghosts of reporters long gone might haunt the former State House press room, once located right under the dome - not to mention a notable graffiti collection on its wooden inside walls.

To explore those stories and more, David Schutz is once again a leading authority.

Vermont’s State House is both a glorious part of our present - and a fascinating and instructive part of our past – more than enough reason to keep its iconic dome beautiful and structurally sound.