So they want to give the State House dome a new face.

The Legislature last week was looking for more information before approving the $1.2 million project, slated for next year, that would replace the dome’s 100-plus-year-old copper.

While holes are letting water in, the focus has been more on the fact that the familiar pale green dome would be “like a shiny new penny” for a few years after the project. Later the dome would dull to brown, then to the familiar green that it is now.

David Boulter, executive director of the Legislature, was quoted by several newspapers as saying the copper, which went on the dome when it was added to the State House in 1909-10, has outlived its 75-year lifespan.

Much has been made of the pockmarks that you might be bothered by if, say, you’re flying a helicopter by the dome. Experts have found cracks in the solder.

But no one has really said what kind of damage the water is doing. No one is saying the dome is falling apart.

Reports last week on the dome pretty much followed the script — to the point that all three of the state’s major daily newspapers described architect Charles Bulfinch as “famed” (just in case you’d never heard of him and wondered if he was just some hack from Capitols-R-Us).

The Legislature put off the finalizing the project until it could get more information.

Some may remember a similar proposal about 40 years ago. That one was to clothe the dome in gold leaf, making it eternally, rather than temporarily, bright and shiny. The proposal never went anywhere, not only because of money, but because the thought of the dome being covered in gold leaf just made people feel icky.

Charlotte Briggs, a grade-schooler at Augusta’s Farrington School at the time, wrote a letter to the editor of the Kennebec Journal opposing the project, she recalled this week, “on the grounds that the green dome was symbolic of (Maine’s) beautiful green forests.”

Briggs, now an administrator at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Mass., was at Oberlin college a few years later when the topic of the dome again arose.

“I took a class in college called The Social History of American Architecture. The professor, Geoffrey Blodgett, had written several books about American architectural history, and filled his lectures with slides of pictures he had taken on his travels across the U.S.”

She said in one lecture he showed a picture of the State House and said it was the “most austere” state capitol in the nation. He “commented that the cool green patina of the dome and unusually stark granite facade, in comparison to the shiny domes of many state capitols and the greater ornamentation of most, seemed fitting for such a cold, harsh land.”

Needless to say, professor Blodgett is from away.

Briggs said that it strikes her that the proposals — 40 years ago and today — come during recessions “and that while proponents see them as an opportunity to buoy state spirit and confidence, others of us are somewhat repelled.”

Part of that negative feeling comes “because of several centuries of Yankee thrift bred into our DNA.”

But some also comes “in part because we harbor some deeper sense of relief that the recession is giving us respite from an otherwise increasingly consumptive culture, and encouraging an appreciation for the non-shiny things we value, like our beautiful landscape, an evening’s entertainment hearing the neighbor tell stories and the self-reliance to make do with what we have.”

Unlike the capitols of a lot of neighboring states, ours was put in a spot where it can be seen. And seen it is by those approaching Augusta from any direction, but particularly along the river north and south. It pops up unexpectedly and is an impressive sight, rising above the trees, river and the rest of the city’s skyline.

In town, it’s there like a friendly sentinel — whether you’re driving east on Western Avenue, tooling around the east side or coming down Sand Hill — nestled in among the city’s granite and clapboards, solid and strong.

Once, years ago, I was at the top of Massachusetts’ Mount Wachussett on a beautiful fall day and was thrilled to see, shining in the sun way off to the east, the bright flash of the Massachusetts State House dome, which is sheathed in always-shiny gold leaf.

That was pretty cool, but didn’t give me the same proud comfort our green dome gives me every time it comes into view.

It’s a relief to me that Maine’s plan is for the dome to be shiny — like a new penny! — for only a short time before easing back into its green patina.

It has nothing to do with Maine being cold and harsh. It’s more like not being shiny just for shiny’s sake. If the dome truly needs a facelift and we can come up with the money, great. Do the operation.

Let’s just hope our old friend gets back to normal as soon as possible.
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. She grew up in Augusta. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month.

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