N.H. State House dome getting a golden makeover

Last modified: 7/14/2013 8:09:35 PM
Tissue-thin gold leaf will be applied to cover the tarnished under-layer of copper and restore the luster to New Hampshire’s Civil War-era State House dome in a makeover starting this fall.

The Legislature approved $1 million over the last two years to replace rotted wood and apply a new layer of gold leaf. Gov. Maggie Hassan approved the last installment in the capital budget signed this week.

Deputy Administrative Services Commissioner Mike Connor said a contract could be ready for Executive Council consideration next month so work can start.

If the contract is approved, winning bidder D.L. King Associates of Nashua will handle restoration and painting of the wooden support for the dome and supervise the work of applying the gold leaf. The view of the dome will be partially blocked this fall and spring by scaffolding as work restoring the wood around the dome is completed. Scaffolding will block the view of the dome itself next spring, summer and fall as the gold leaf is applied.

Art King, chief executive officer of D.L. King, said Wednesday that the company will subcontract with an expert in gold leafing for that phase of the work but will handle the wood restoration itself. He declined to name the expert since his company doesn’t yet have an approved contract with the state.

“The part of the job we think we are really good at is historic restoration,” he said.

Any wood that is rotten will be removed and replaced with matching pieces, he said. Glass also will be restored as needed.

New Hampshire’s State House was built in 1819 and is the nation’s oldest capitol building in which the Legislature still uses its original chambers.

The original dome was similar to a silo and perched on top, according to the State House Visitor’s Center. The dome was enlarged as part of a project to expand the State House during the Civil War. It was modeled after the 17th-century dome on top of the church of the Hotel des Invalides in Paris.

An eagle has been perched on top of the dome since 1819, according to materials supplied by the visitor’s center. The original eagle was made of butternut with the wings and head hinged with wooden pegs. It weighed 600 pounds, was 6½ feet tall, nearly 5 feet across the wings and 118 feet above the ground. Carved by Leonard Morse, the head was turned to the left to symbolize the eagle of war.

The original eagle was replaced in 1957 by a copper replica that weighs 250 pounds, including lightning rods connected to grounding wires, according to the visitor’s center. It is the same height and wingspan as the original, which is now located in the main lobby of the New Hampshire Historical Society. The copper eagle – also gilded with gold leaf – is 150 feet above the city of Concord with its head turned to the right to symbolize peace.

The base material under the dome is copper. The gold leaf adhered to it in 1992 contained small amounts of copper, silver and platinum. The total applied was 16 pounds over 2,300 square feet at a cost of $370 per ounce, or $95,175.

The gold does not corrode but is gradually worn off by the weather.

The price for gold in the latest restoration is estimated at nearly $170,000 with a $25,000 allowance for increases since the price of gold fluctuates.

The state had hoped the gold leaf applied in 1992 would last 30 years. But Connor said signs of wear may be due to a long period between when the copper was bare before being primed and the gold leaf applied after the state had to bring in a second contractor to finish the job because of a dispute with the original contractor.

“It didn’t bond properly. What you are seeing is all the gold is gone,” he said.

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