Meticulous Attention

11 david and chairLinda Burton posting from Montpelier, Vermont – Meticulous. That’s the word. When it comes to restoration, there are two ways to go about it. You can recreate the general mood of the past – who would really know, after all? Or you can pay meticulous attention to the smallest detail. Such as the antlers on a hand-carved deer, so tiny no one would ever notice they were missing. I stood in the Governor’s Office as David Schutz, Curator for the State, pointed out the deer. It’s part of the Constitution Chair, so called because it was carved from the timbers of the frigate USS Constitution (aka Old Ironsides) and has served as the official governor’s chair since 1858. Now that’s a pretty awesomely unique chair, right there. But, as David pointed out, it suffered from years of use, and modernization. It was reupholstered with modern fabrics, and somewhere along the way, the 11 david and chair cdelicate antlers of the deer were broken off. During the restoration of 1985, the decision was made to restore the chair, and give the deer its antlers back. But not just any wood was used. A trip was made to Boston, where the USS Constitution is berthed for public tours. By special arrangement, a small piece of “Constitution timber” was obtained from which to 11 skyline vermontcarve new antlers for the deer; the Constitution Chair was made whole again. Meticulous. There’s another word that describes the Vermont State House, and that word is “intimate.” The building nestles between the river and the hills; inside its granite walls there’s warmth and color in every room. It has a cozy feel, but touches everywhere that make it grand; soft red velvet draped against shuttered windows; gilt-bronze radiator screens with delicate patterns of cast-iron curving vines; tiny warrior cherubs perched on the gasoliers.

I was just finishing a bowl of beef noodle soup in the cafeteria when David walked in. It was a chilly day but the soup was warm; I’d chosen a window seat so I could watch as rain dripped on the ferns and native flowers in the garden setting just outside, where firs and sturdy Vermont rocks climbed straight up the hill. We chatted for a long, long time; about history, and state capitols, and Vermont. David told the story of Vermont’s three state houses; “During the early days,” he said, “Vermont didn’t even have a capital city. The General Assembly met 46 times in 14 different towns before Montpelier was chosen as a permanent site.” That was 1805, and the choice was provisional; Montpelier had to provide the land for a capitol building, and that building had to be done by September 1808. It was; Thomas Davis donated the land and a three-story wooden meetinghouse was built at a cost of $9,000.

11 back of buildings 2The wooden building deteriorated over the years; it eventually was torn down and replaced by a grander structure – a classically inspired granite building on an elevated site blasted out of the hillside above the river. It cost $132,000, and was completed in 1838. Wood-burning heating systems can be dangerous; on a cold January night in 1857, the building caught fire and almost everything was destroyed. But not the Grecian portico – it was saved and incorporated into the design of the third and present State House (which cost $150,000). “The portico dates to 1838,” David continued, “and the main section right behind to 1859.” As we walked from the cafeteria at the back to the main building, he pointed out the additions; they date from 1888, 1900, and 1987.

11 painting in cedar creekOur path led to the Cedar Creek Reception Room, where a painting of enormous size dominates one wall; it’s the 20 x 10 foot rendition of The Battle of Cedar Creek; artist Julian Scott created it between 1871 and 1874 for the State House. The setting is Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; the Civil War scene shows the Old Vermont Brigade leading a rally that would reverse a Union retreat; the date is October 1864. Despite the grandeur of the painting, the intricate oriental carpet design, the grand piano in the corner, the curved-back settees, and the hand-carved marble-topped 11 cedar creek roomtable adorned with flowers, the room had a comfortable feel. “Intimate,” David said. I nodded, agreeing. The governor’s office was next, where we’d see that Constitution Chair; the adjoining spacious rooms are used for important state events, yet open for the public to see as well.

We continued down the hallway to the House Chambers, where the 150 Vermont representatives meet. It has been restored to an 1859 look; from the center hangs the original bronze and gilt chandelier. “It’s one of America’s most important surviving gas fixtures,” David said, pointing out the allegorical figures of Commerce, 11 house chambersPrudence, Eloquence, and Science, and the Hiram Powers famous Greek Slave, thought to be an abolitionist statement in this pre-Civil War building. We waited for the tour ahead to finish before walking in for a closer look. Over the speaker’s rostrum George Washington’s portrait hangs high; almost-invisible doors underneath were added when an addition to the building was made. The 1836 George Gassner copy of Gilbert Stuart’s original was rescued from that 1857 fire; an elegant look in a room warmed by reds and golds and hand-carved woods. I noticed the 11 house desks“modesty skirts” on the front of each of the desks; another intimate detail of times past.

We headed for the Senate Chamber next; all furnishings there are original. David led me to the hand-carved rostrum, pointing out Vermont’s coat of arms at the center. The gasolier was lost for years, but found in 1979 and restored and rehung; this one has a maritime theme, with sea horses and water lilies; delicate, yet grand. Green velvet settees arranged under 11 senate chambergreen velvet draped windows are for public use; “People can sit here when Senate is in session,” David explained, “or in the gallery, whichever they choose.” “An intimate meeting place for sure,” I said. “I’ve never seen that anywhere before.” I wanted to sit for a while myself, but there was more to see.

We walked the hallways where portraits of Vermont’s 80 governors hang; the poses range from 1800s austere to 2000s modern, such as that of Howard Dean in boots and jeans; we stopped at portraits of Calvin 11 fossil floorCoolidge and Chester Arthur, two presidents from Vermont, and naval heroes Admiral Dewey from Montpelier, and Charles Clark from Bradford. We looked for fossils in the black and while tiled lobby floor; the white tiles are from Danby, Vermont; the black from Isle La Motte on Lake Champlain. We stopped in the Hall of Flags to see the 68 flags carried by Vermont regiments in the Civil War. We sat to rest in chairs beside one of the two curving staircases in the building; cast iron in delicate design. 11 stairsWe talked with the volunteer tour guides on hand for today’s visiting groups; a Japanese-language speaker was waiting for a busload of Japanese visitors. We passed the bust of Abraham Lincoln, the only work of Larkin Mead that remains in the capitol. It was done in preparation for the large bronze statue Mead created for Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois (yes, I remember seeing that).

In answer to my questions about the dome, David explained how Vermont’s State House came to be the only building in the world (“so we believe,” he said to qualify) in which there is no interior expression of the dome above. The original 1830s design called for skylights allowing light over the interior staircases; when the current building was constructed it was decided that supporting trusses were needed under the dome; 11 domethe design was changed. There is no “rotunda” to look into; the gold-gilded dome is only for outside view. It’s topped by a replacement of Larkin Mead’s first venture into high art, a statue representing Agriculture, and that’s a good story too – the original Mead statue was made of wood, which deteriorated over time; the replacement was carved in 1938 by Sergeant-at-Arms Dwight Dwinell and crew; Dwinell was 87 at the time; his work is considered genuine folk art.

Our last stop was the Under The Dome gift shop, where volunteers Teresa and Sharon excitedly showed me around. “The Gift Shop is seasonal,” they explained. “We’re only here when there is no session going on. When session begins, this room reverts to a committee room, and a post office for the legislators.” What a clever idea! Space that would be unused 11 jims bookduring much of the year is put to good use – “That’s a good example,” I said, “for all those capitols who haven’t yet figured out where to put a gift shop.” “We operate a moveable cart when session begins,” Teresa explained, “where we sell postcards and small items people want. We never shut down completely.” The larger items are packed away in storage for that period of the year. The ladies posed for me with Board Member Jim Stembridge’s Fifty State Capitols book, which they proudly sell.

11 Vermont State House CutawayI thanked David for his time and praised the work he’s done in his 35 years with the state of Vermont. “Meticulous pays off,” I said. “Good job.” David handed me the State House brochure, one of the cleverest designs I’ve ever seen. A Walk through Vermont’s Historic State House is printed across the front of the tiny folded piece; unfold it bit by bit and the State House story is revealed; pictures of the buildings that have served the state; interior details in color; a written account of the history; and my favorite of all, a cutaway drawing of the building. No citizen of Vermont, or visitor from anywhere, is left to wonder.

The rain had stopped by the time I headed back to my car. The golden dome was shining; my postcards and the clever brochure were tucked inside my pack. “Stories can be told in many ways,” I thought; “through words, and images, and through meticulous attention to the smallest detail.”

Vermont State House, 115 State Street, Montpelier, open year round Monday-Friday except state holidays, tours call 802-828-2228 for hours,

Note: The Vermont State Curator’s Office oversees the restoration, care and conservation of the historic Vermont State House and the collections of fine art, decorative art and historic furniture housed there. In addition, the State Curator’s Office manages three gallery spaces in the Capitol Complex for rotating exhibitions of contemporary art: the Governor’s Office in the Pavilion Office Building; the lobby of the Supreme Court Building and the State House cafeteria. Care and management of the broader State Art Collection is also a responsibility of this office.

The State Curator works closely with the Friends of the Vermont State House, a private not-for-profit organization, to supervise the more than 100 volunteers who work at the State House as general tour guides, school tour guides or in the seasonal Under the Dome gift shop.

Maintenance and renovation projects undertaken at historic buildings owned by the state of Vermont and managed by the Department of Buildings and General Services are reviewed by the State Curator’s Office. Curatorial staff conduct research and provide support to insure that projects are carried out in accordance with the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for the Rehabilitation of Historic Structures.