Rejuvenated Golden Dome Awaits its Goddess

Sculptor Chris Miller works on Ceres. Photo by Tom Brown

by Tom Brown

Montpelier’s capitol dome proudly displays her fresh 23.75 carat gold coat as she glitters in the early fall sun, but she looks a bit barren without her signature crown.

Five miles away in the cavernous Vermont Granite Museum in Barre, master wood sculptor Chris Miller is chipping away on two tons of laminated mahogany to forge the dome’s crowning jewel—a 14-foot-tall representation of “Agriculture” that is expected to be hoisted atop the dome next month.

The latest iteration to be called Ceres, in homage to the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility, will be just the third to watch over the Green Mountain State in 160 years. The responsibility of preserving that history is not lost on Miller.

“This is a dream commission,” Miller said as his chisel deftly smoothed Ceres’ classic Roman brow. “You spend 40 some-odd years carving wood and making sculpture, and you hope something like this comes along in a lifetime. We were very, very honored to be chosen to do this.”

“We” includes renowned Montpelier granite sculptor Jerry Williams, with whom Miller won a $131,000 state contract to create the next generation icon. The pair will receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in a State House ceremony November 14. If all goes well, the new Ceres will preside by then from her new perch.

Williams, with guidance from state curator David Schutz and others, sculpted a quarter-scale model of Ceres, based in part on the original pine statue sculpted by Vermonter Larkin Mead. That version adhered closely to the classic Roman style, with its non-embellished features. That version stood atop the dome for 80 years until it was replaced in 1938 by a carving by Dwight Dwinell, who was legislative sergeant-at-arms at the time. That Ceres, referred to by some as more of a folk art representation, was taken down in April to facilitate the dome’s restoration and regilding. Though rotten and waterlogged, she managed to stay upright for 80 years. The third generation piece retains her elegant pleated gown and she still clutches her sheaf of wheat.

Williams, working from fuzzy photographs and drawings of Mead’s original, softened the classic aquiline (or hooked) nose a bit but kept the sculpture’s characteristic blank eyes and plain-spun beauty.

“He was mostly interested in the modeling part as his creative expression,” Miller said of the partnership with Williams, “and I was mostly interested in the carving part. Jerry is the finest model-making sculptor in Vermont, and I am very fortunate to be working from that model and enlarging it to that size.”

Miller estimates he will have at least 700 hours invested in the carving alone, and perhaps an equal amount cutting, gluing, and roughing the raw material.

“I’ll have about six months into it,” Miller said.

All That Glitters is Gilded

The commissioning of the new statue is part of a $2-million restoration of the iconic capitol dome, which was last regilded in 1976. The painstaking work by EverGreene Architectural Arts, based in Brooklyn, was recently completed and the scaffolding is just about gone.

With each level of staging removed the dome, first gilded in 1906, reveals a little more of its shiny new surface.

“I am incredibly pleased,” Schutz said. “It’s the best gilding that’s ever been done [on the dome].  The last time, in 1976, lasted twice as long as any previous gilding, 42 years. We’re looking for at least 40 years, if not even 60, this time.”

Four gilders stripped the dome, repaired leaks in the building’s underlying original copper roof and applied more than 7,000 sheets of gold leaf foil over the summer. Once the new windows are popped in and Ceres is returned to her throne, the dome will be weathertight, Schutz said.

“We believe it is the oldest roof on any building in Vermont,” Schutz said. “The copper that sheaths the dome dates back to 1859 when the State House was built.”

Long May She Reign

As for the goddess, the new Ceres should outlive her ancestors, thanks to years of advancement in construction techniques and material. Improvements in the epoxy used to bind the slices of naturally water-resistant mahogany—sustainably sourced from a plantation in Honduras—will help to limit cracking and keep out moisture.

Rather than perennially bathing in Vermont’s rain, snow, and ice, “It will be mounted to a post with two inches of air under it so it won’t be sitting in water,” Miller said. “The life expectancy is definitely greater than the old ones.”

The statue will be sealed with a specially formulated blend of boiled linseed oil and white pigment, Schutz said. The sculpture will be taken down by crane every eight to 10 years and retreated.

“My guess is it will last 150 years,” Miller chuckled, “I’m guaranteeing 100.”

Of course it will be hard to collect on that guarantee.

“No one alive today will be here when it’s replaced,” he said.

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