Restoration of Capitol dome is golden opportunity to let Colorado’s resilience shine

Even though completion of the Capitol dome restoration project isn’t expected until the summer of 2014, architects and state leaders behind the ambitious job are already expressing excitement as the project reached a crucial milestone with the application of new gold leaf.

Since erection of the scaffolding began in fall 2010, crews have been working their way toward applying brand new gold leaf over the copper-clad dome. Contractors are applying approximately 140,000, 3 1⁄8” x 3 1⁄8” gold leaves on top of copper that covers the dome.

The process is truly remarkable. The leaves are rolled out of 24-karat gold to between 1/8,000- and 1/10,000-inch thick. The incredibly thin, almost paper-like material creates more than 1,000 leaves out of less than an ounce of gold. Officials estimate that it will take about 60 ounces of gold to cover the entire dome.

Perspective and scale is different from high above… the “Share in the Care” sign dwarfs members of the media walking beneath it.

In a spectacular partnership that dates back to when the first gold was laid in 1903, the same mine, AngloGold Ashanti, has once again donated the gold. It was mined from Colorado’s Victor and Cripple Creek region.

Jill Eide applies paper-backed gold leaf to copper that has been primed and then coated with an oil-based varnish. When she reaches the top of this row, she will gently remove the paper backing and discard it. Remaining raised areas of the gold leaf will then be burnished with the use of a small soft brush in a gentle fluttering motion.

Gov. John Hickenlooper stopped by the construction project on Friday, Nov. 22 to check on the progress: “I can’t wait,” he said.

Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration communications manager Doug Platt returns to street level still wearing protective gear following the media tour of the State Capitol Dome Restoration project.

The governor pointed out that after the devastating flooding that the state experienced this summer; the gold dome restoration project has taken on new significant meaning.

A section of the smaller upper dome on the Capitol gleams with freshly applied gold leaf.

“Over the past two years, Colorado has gone through more disasters and more challenges than most states go through in 50 years, and I think that is difficult for the entire state. The dome, in a funny way, becomes a symbol of the state’s resilience…” remarked the governor. “I think that when this is all back next summer, it will be a symbol that we’re back, because the flood recovery is going to take at least another year.

General Contractor GH Phipps Superintendent Chris Derington stresses that the work being done at the Capitol now is “preservation, not replacement.”

“In 110 years, it’s still shiny and beautiful, and hopefully we will put this new coating on it with a stronger understructure, and it will be as good as new, and better than new, and we’ll get more than another 100 years,” the governor continued, holding a piece of gold-covered plating from 110 years ago.

High above the street, Colorado Department of Personnel communications manager Doug Platt chats with Colorado Statesman reporter Peter Marcus as they return to the construction elevator at the end of the Dome restoration media tour.

Hickenlooper went on to joke that while the building has aged, the debates that face the state, such as increasing taxes, appear to be ageless.

Governor John Hickenlooper listens to state architect Larry Friedberg who is holding a damaged section of gold-clad copper that was removed from the Capitol dome.

“They built this incredible thing, hardly anybody lived in the state, and now we want to raise taxes to polish the floor, ‘No way, we can’t afford it!’” the governor joked of Coloradans’ lack of appetite for any tax increases. “It’s a different time indeed.

State architect Larry Friedberg refers to a copy of an early architectural rendering of the front elevation of the Colorado State Capitol. The original drawing is over 100 years old.

“I’m going to guess that everything that takes place in that building is pretty much the same level of shininess that it was 100 years ago,” he continued. “I mean that in the best way and in the worst way.”

The current project is the most ambitious of all previous restoration efforts, aiming to restore and repair damage to the exterior painted circular drum above the roof of the Capitol that includes the famous gold-covered dome. Despite what most people believe, the structure was manufactured out of cast iron — not out of stone.

But more than a century of water infiltration coupled with Colorado’s freeze/thaw cycle has caused extreme rusting and deterioration of the metal surfaces on the exterior. Weather dented and damaged much of the copper plates. The damage includes some of the architectural details and the fasteners that hold them in place. Hundreds of pieces have been affected.

The outside balcony of the dome has been closed since 2006, when fasteners rusted and a piece of cast iron dropped from the ceiling onto the balcony. While construction crews stress that the building is structurally sound, the incident sparked the current restoration project, in which lawmakers paved the way for more complete construction.

The original estimate for the repair job was $17 million, but project managers say the work is currently under budget. The legislature dedicated $4 million from the State Historical Fund for the work, and Colorado Preservation Inc. has been raising the remaining dollars from private donors. The project is called Share in the Care Colorado.

Larry Friedberg, state architect, said the restoration project has come with its share of surprises. For one, construction crews first had to determine what material they were working with. It’s been hard to determine since much of it is behind lead-based paint.

“When we started, although all that is metal clad, we didn’t know what the materials were, so we couldn’t differentiate between cast iron, wrought iron and copper. And so now we know…” said the state architect.

“A lot of what we’re doing on this project, we had to discover what was up there, and you don’t know really what the condition is,” added Friedberg.

He said it has been helpful working with the Michigan-based Quinn Evans Architects, that did restoration work on the Michigan state capitol, which was designed by the same architect as the Colorado Capitol, Elijah E. Myers.

“Our design and construction team has previous experience working on a building just like this… What they bring to the table is lessons learned from how the building was constructed,” said Friedberg.

Just less than 270 feet up in the air — where the very tip of the dome is marked by lightning protection known as a prevectron — crews are applying the gold. At first glance it looks like they are simply painting the gold on with rollers. But workers explain that the craft is more of an art. They are astonished that previous crews did the work without the help of scaffolding.

The scaffolding and screen masking that surrounds the building is a first, demonstrating the complexity of the project.

“That’s something we’ve never done before,” explained Friedberg. “This is the first time that scaffolding has ever been on top of the roof to access the dome.”

He added that the building first needed to be reinforced to take the load of the scaffolding to access the dome. In the past, construction crews used ladders or repelled to do restoration work. This marks only the fourth time in the dome’s history that it has been re-gilded, having occurred in 1950, 1980 and 1991.

“The interesting fact is that… they gilded this over 20 years ago without scaffolding… Imagine that,” Friedberg said with awe.

The process itself is time consuming. First workers needed to cut the siding, place all the new copper, rivet the copper, solder it and then prepare it for gilding. But Friedberg said it’s all worth it.

“It’s not going to be back to the way it was,” he said. “It’s going to be better.”


See the Nov. 29 print edition for full photo coverage

Visiting media get a close-up explanation of the gilding process inside the protective scrim enclosing the Capitol Dome.
Atop the small upper dome of the State Capitol is a crystal globe currently surrounded with scaffolding and enclosed in a fire retardant scrim..
Photos by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

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