There are 149 steps to the top of the State House dome. As I climbed to the top, my fear of heights – which oddly enough manifests itself as a fear of steep and narrow staircases – kicked in on or around step five. “Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?” I said to my companions, my colleague Laura Stansbury, a tour guide at Annapolis Tours by Watermark, and Corporal Nevy, our escort at the State House. “No, but I can tell by the way you’re hugging the railing. Just take it nice and slow,” said Corporal Nevy patiently as he climbed the steps behind me. Receiving an invitation to the top of the State House dome is so rare and exciting that the whole heights thing didn’t enter my mind until that day. Not willing to miss out on seeing a piece of history first hand, I powered through.
The Maryland State House we see today is the third State House built on the highest part of Annapolis. The first was constructed in 1694-95 and lasted only until 1704 when it burned to the ground. By 1707 the second State House was underway. It housed the business of the state, county and town but had fallen into a state of disrepair by 1766. After visiting Annapolis, a young Thomas Jefferson wrote, “judging from its appearance and form…it was built in year One.” In 1769, the decision was made to raze it and work began on a third State House. The cornerstone was laid on March 28, 1772 by Governor Robert Eden.
The first dome, or cupola, leaked and was also deemed inadequate and unimpressive when the Continental Congress came to meet in the Old Senate Chamber from November 1783 – August 1784. Joseph Clark was tasked with repairing the leaking structure. He drew the architectural design of today’s dome, making it the largest, all-wooden dome in North America. Actually a double dome with one inside another, the exterior dome was completed by summer of 1788. It is constructed of cypress beams held together with wooden pegs. Incredibly, not a single nail, screw or metal beam was used. Instead they relied on mortise and tenon joints for a secure build and iron straps made by an Annapolis ironmonger.
The interior was not completed until 1797. Much of the plaster work was done by Thomas Dance who tragically fell to his death inside the dome. It’s believed Dance’s ghost haunts the dome…at least Annapolis ghost tour guides will have you believe that. After Dance’s death, John Shaw, noted Annapolis cabinetmaker, completed the work.
The walk to the top is dark and hot and 113 feet high. Only natural light comes in through the circular windows. At the landings I’d stop to collect myself and marvel at the signatures painted on the wood. Workers and visitors throughout the centuries have signed their names inside. The oldest were in large calligraphy and white paint; true pieces of art. The earliest signature I saw was from 1894. I’m sure if I’d been more comfortable on the stairs I would have spotted an earlier artifact. Newer names are scrawled in pen and a bit jarring in such an historic place. We left nothing behind on our visit except gratitude.
Once at the top, we exited the door and stepped outside. Now on top of the world, we enjoyed a cool breeze and striking 360 degree views of the entire city and the Annapolis Harbor. My fear of heights was left on the stairs and Laura and I beamed from ear to ear as we walked the entire perimeter taking photos and, mostly, taking it all in.
Photos courtesy of Katie Redmiles