Friday, July 11, 2014

Joseph Clark's Dome

Many tourists enter the Maryland State House, admire the copy of George Washington’s resignation speech in the rotunda, and look above them at the interior of the dome. Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that the dome visitors see today was the very dome that stood when Washington entered the building on December 23, 1783. In fact, the famous dome that crowns the State House is not the first on the building.

Conjectural drawing of the original appearance of the State House dome when the building first opened in 1772. Sketch by Elizabeth Ridout, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1444.

Though construction on the State House began in 1772, when Continental Congress arrived in 1783, they found a building still riddled with complications. The building's undertaker, Charles Wallace, left the project in 1779 due to frustration with finances and continual delays to the project from weather and war. Though the rooms were fully completed and furnished in 1783, the roof continually leaked and damaged much of the upstairs rooms. Aesthetically, the original dome that Congress would have seen was considered too small and unimpressive for a building considered the most beautiful in America.

It was clear that something had to be done and Annapolis architect, Joseph Clark, was enlisted to help repair the roof and dome. A 1784 assessment of the dome proved that the original structure was too damaged in the span of only a decade to be repaired, and a new dome would be required. The Intendant of the Revenue, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, described the original dome as, “originally constructed contrary to all rules of architecture.”[1] Jenifer recruited carpenters to create a new dome, declaring that Clark’s dome would be “sixty foot higher than the old one.”[2]

Apart from his architectural achievements, Clark was also, interestingly, a remarkable ice skater. He held the honor between 1784 and 1835 of being the only man to skate from Baltimore to Annapolis. Maryland Republican, 13 January 1835.

While Clark repaired the roof by raising the pitch to allow more efficient water run-off, it is the dome for which he is most remembered. It is thought that Clark may have used the tower at Germany’s Karlsruhe Palace, known as the Schlosstrum, as his inspiration for the Maryland State House dome. Though no records exist to prove this theory, the two structures’ aesthetic similarities and the fact that the earlier-constructed Schlosstrum had been published in books by the time of Clark’s contract, do lend some credence to the idea.

Clark’s design required the construction of not one dome, but two. The dome that visitors look up into from inside the State House in the rotunda is actually the interior dome, which is surrounded by an exterior shell. While the exterior dome was completed by 1788, it wasn’t until 1797 that the interior dome was finally finished.

Karlsruhe Palace, built in 1715. The tower seen in this photograph may have served as inspiration for the Maryland State House dome. Image courtesy of the Schloss Karlsruhe.
The State House dome today. Image courtesy of Jay Baker, 2007, Maryland State Archives.

Clark was assisted in the construction of the dome by many Annapolis residents. Simon Retallick, a local blacksmith who had also constructed andirons for the Old Senate Chamber, likely made his most famous contribution to the State House with the forging and installation of the lighting rod on top of the dome. In 1793, a local plasterer, Thomas Dance, fell from the inside of the dome and died. Soon after, in 1794, Clark quit the project and left the completion of the interior of the dome to Annapolis cabinetmaker, John Shaw.

Charles Willson Peale's sketch of the current State House dome, July 1788. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1051-1.

Since its construction, the State House’s dome has been an attraction for many notable Americans. Charles Willson Peale sketched several views of the city from the dome, and, in September 1790, Thomas Jefferson returned to Annapolis, accompanied by James Madison, and climbed the steps to the dome’s balcony. They were joined by a citizen of Annapolis who “open[ed] the roofs of the houses and [told] the history of each family who lived in them.”[3]

Though the current dome may not have stood when Washington resigned his commission, it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the state of Maryland, and comes with a long history of its own. The efforts of Clark and the countless artisans and laborers who worked to construct the dome has led to a remarkable feat of architecture. The dome is considered the largest wooden dome in the country, and is still held together entirely without structural nails. Instead, wooden pegs and mortise and tenon joinery lock the cypress beams in place and are reinforced by the original iron straps. Even Simon Retallick’s lighting rod remains, and continues to fulfill its vital role of protecting the State House.

[1] Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, November 1784, Archives of Maryland Online, p.25.
[2] Maryland Gazette, 24 February 1785.
[3] Thomas Lee Shippen to William Shippen, 15 September 1790. From James M. Gabler and Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, MSA S 1259-131-590.

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