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Work moves ahead on historic NH House Chamber

  • Lico Olivira from Arch Painting in Woburn, Mass., fills the molding with a coating before they paint the House Chambers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The seats in historic Representatives Hall are covered in plastic.

  • Lico Olivira from Arch Painting in Woburn, Massachussets fills in on the molding with a coating before they will paint the chambsers on Tuesday, July 14, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2021 8:00:09 AM

The Chamber of the New Hampshire House of Representatives can often be found empty during July recess, but this summer the historic room that can hold all 400 representatives is especially bare. The usually crowded Chamber is quiet, the seats are covered in plastic and it’s missing all eight chandeliers and the five enormous paintings that normally face the seated legislators.

The 202-year-old House Chamber is looking plain this week because the House speaker’s office has begun a restoration process of the nation’s oldest chamber where state representatives still regularly meet. The goal is to complete the renovations by mid-October. The Chamber was last fully redone in 2004, and the paint is beginning to peel – particularly in one spot where water leaking from the AC system recently cracked the light blue ceiling.

Originally opened in 1819, this is the room in the State House where New Hampshire’s House of Representatives, the largest state legislative body in the United States, meets together and votes on bills. The original House had 87 members, which each represented 100 families. Now, 400 members each represent about 2,300 individuals.

The speaker of the NH House of Representatives, in addition to assigning bills to committees and appointing committee chairs, is tasked with maintaining the House Chamber. “This building is irreplaceable, this room is irreplaceable, the paintings are irreplaceable,” Speaker Sherman Packard said. “If you don’t take care of this stuff when you need to, it’s going to cost you more in the long run.”

Restoration is a delicate process because parts of the room date back to different eras, where different materials were used, Packard said. In the coming months, workers will erect a scaffolding to access the upper parts of the room. This renewal, which will cost about $380,000, is meant to preserve historic features and avoid the need for more drastic fixes in the future. “We’re hoping it’ll be good for 20 to 25 years,” General Court Chief Operating Officer Terry Pfaff said.

This first phase of this maintenance project began in 2019 with the installation of a $300,000 air conditioning system, which will keep representatives cool and preserve the Chamber’s fixtures, which have suffered degradation from changes in heat and humidity over the years. The painting of George Washington, the oldest hanging in the chamber, dates back to 1835.

Last week, movers took down portraits of Franklin Pierce, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster and John P. Hale. It took 10 people working together to remove one painting: each weighs about 300 pounds. Next, the portraits will be restored and cleaned and have their frames checked for sturdiness.

Eight chandeliers that usually hang from the Chamber were also removed for rewiring and retouching. In addition to painting the walls and ceilings, plaster fixtures in the Chamber will undergo restoration. Legislators will also be able to enjoy both new ceiling fans and new cushions in the anterooms right outside the Chamber.

While past work has focused on preserving the Chamber’s historic roots, there have been some changes to update the room to the present day. Wireless internet is one of those more recent innovations, and so is the new AC system, a modern solution which Speaker Packard hopes will help keep the Chamber’s soon-to-be restored 19th century paintings and plaster in good shape for another few hundred years.

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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