Drawing of State House DomeThe Story of the Maryland State House and Its Dome
"...the finest prospect in the world"

On March 28, 1772, Governor Robert Eden laid the cornerstone for what would be the third State House built on State Circle in Annapolis. The first, built soon after the capital was moved from St. Mary's City to Annapolis in 1695, burned down in 1704. The second was completed by 1709 and, 60 years later, had become far too small for the growing business of government and was too dilapidated to warrant enlarging it. The decision was made to raze it and Charles Wallace undertook the work when no one else submitted "plans and estimates" for the project.

With Mr. Wallace as the "undertaker" and Joseph Horatio Anderson as the architect, work was begun on the new State House in early 1772. While work progressed well for the first year and a half, at least one hurricane and the Revolutionary War intervened to cause enormous delays and difficulties. By the end of 1779, the building was still not completed, and Mr. Wallace's finances and patience with the project were exhausted.

When the Continental Congress came to Annapolis to meet in the Old Senate Chamber from November 1783 - August 1784, they found a State House which was still unfinished. Although the Old Senate Chamber was complete, the roof was not and it had leaked during the last few winters, damaging the upstairs rooms. The dome - or cupola - atop the State House was variously described as inadequate, unimpressive, and too small for the building and, it, too, leaked.

In 1784, the General Assembly asked the Intendant of the Revenue, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, to report on what needed to be done to complete the building. His conclusions were bleak. With reference to the roof, he said that it "had been constructed contrary to all the rules of architecture," and that it would be throwing money away to try to repair it. As for the modest dome, he thought that it might stand for another six or seven years without injuring the building.

In order to rectify the situation, Jenifer, in 1785, was authorized to contract with Joseph Clark, an Annapolis architect and builder, to repair the roof and the dome. Clark first raised the pitch of the roof to facilitate the runoff of water and covered it with cypress shingles. The crowning achievement of Clark's work on the State House was, of course, the extraordinary dome which he designed and built. It is not known where Clark's inspiration for the unusual design of the dome came from, but it is very similar to one in Karlsruhe, Germany called the Schlossturm. Clark's brother, Stephen, kept a book and print shop in Annapolis, and it is possible that Clark saw an image of the Karlsruhe dome there.

By the summer of 1788, the exterior of the new dome was complete. From a design and engineering point of view it is an outstanding achievement. It was constructed of timber supplied by the Dashiell family of Somerset County. No metal nails were used in its construction and, to this day, it is held together by wooden pegs reinforced by iron straps forged by an Annapolis ironmonger.

The lightning rod which tops the dome is a story in itself. It is a "Franklin" rod, constructed and grounded to Benjamin Franklin's specifications. In some respects, the use of this type of lightning rod was also a political statement, expressing support for Franklin's theories on protection of public buildings from lightning strikes and the rejection of the opposing theories supported by King George III. The pointed lightning rod atop such an important new public building was a powerful symbol of the independence and ingenuity of the young nation.

As an architect trained in London and with a brother who had a bookshop in Annapolis, Clark would have been familiar with the writings of Benjamin Franklin. According to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin's treatises were required reading at the time. In addition, Charles Willson Peale confirmed Clark's design. On July 14, 1788, he and his brother went to Philadelphia to see His Excellency Doctor Franklin to ask his opinion on the efficacy of lightning rods on the State House. They were unable to see Franklin, but did see Robert Patterson and David Rittenhouse, both eminent authorities on the physical sciences. Peale reported that Mr. Rittenhouse was of the opinion that "if the points are good and near anough the Building and the part going into the ground so deep as to get into soft earth no danger is to be apprehended, but if the end could be put in water of a Well it would be best."

The engineering of the lightning rod and the acorn which holds it in place represents an astonishing achievement. Protruding 28' into the air, the rod is anchored at its bottom to the top of the dome. It then runs through the pedestal and the acorn and is surmounted by a copper weather vane. The acorn and pedestal have served to stabilize the Franklin rod and hold it in place through 208 years of extremes of Maryland weather.

Although the exterior of the dome was completed by 1788, the interior was not completed until 1797. Tragedy struck the project in 1793 when a plasterer named Thomas Dance fell to his death from the inside of the dome. By 1794, Joseph Clark was completely disillusioned with the project and left it to John Shaw, the noted Annapolis cabinetmaker, to oversee completion. Over the years, John Shaw did much of the maintenance work on the State House, built various items for it and, in 1797, made the desks and chairs which furnished the Old Senate Chamber. Although these pieces were given in 1835 to John Needles of Baltimore as partial payment for new furnishings, some of them have been returned to the room, including the president's desk and chair. Others have found their way into museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Clark's life was a sad one. Both of his sons died while students at King William's School, and, later in life, he was beset by debt. Clark alleged that the State House project put him 17,000 pounds in debt, and his business dealings with Robert Morris of Philadelphia cost him another 49,000 pounds. He did, however, deliver an eloquent oration as grand master pro tem at the laying of the cornerstone of the new U.S. Capitol in 1793. He died in Baltimore on April 26, 1798. In 1828, his only surviving child, Mary S. Magee, petitioned the General Assembly for relief from her father's debts, including money thought to still be owed from the state. The petition was never answered.

The dome which Clark designed and built for the State House has been the defining landmark of the Annapolis skyline for 208 years. It was also, for many years, a popular spot from which to observe the city and the Chesapeake Bay beyond. Charles Willson Peale planned a dramatic cyclorama of Annapolis with eight views from the dome and a centerpiece drawing of State Circle from Cornhill Street. Only the drawing of the State House was completed and published in 1789. Thomas Jefferson spent a most enjoyable three hours in September 1790 on the balcony of the dome with James Madison, Thomas Lee Shippen and an Annapolis friend who entertained them with the gossip related to each of the houses they could see from their perch above the town.

In 1996, an examination of the dome and the acorn revealed that almost all of the material in the acorn, its pedestal and the lightning rod was original from the 18th century. It is known from drawings of the State House and the Dome made in 1788 by Charles Willson Peale that the top of the acorn was gilt and the bottom of it green. Paint analysis has provided a history of the various treatments which have been applied over the centuries. In 1837, the acorn was gilded again on top and painted dark red on the bottom. Its middle and pedestal were marbleized. At the same time, the pedestal was covered with lead and signed and dated by its installers, T. Bennett and P.J. Herold.

During the summer and fall of 1996, the acorn was be removed and replaced by a new one. It had been discovered that water seepage has damaged the cypress wood from which it was made. The new acorn is constructed of 31 pieces of cypress made by craftspeople from around the state and is clad in copper and gilded on the top, like the original. The original lightning rod has remain intact and continues to serve as it has for 208 years, although a steel sleeve has been placed around it inside the new acorn to strengthen it.

The restoration work on the dome and the acorn was performed under the auspices of the State House Trust. The work was supervised by the Department of General Services and the Maryland Historical Trust of the Department of Housing and Community Development, with assistance from the Maryland State Archives. Experts consulting on the project included: Orlando Ridout V, Director, Office of Research, Survey and Registration of the Maryland Historical Trust; Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist; Willie Graham, Curator of Architecture, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Eugene R. Lynch, Secretary, Department of General Services.
Prepared by the staff of the Maryland State Archives

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