1789 engraving

1789 engraving of the Maryland State House that is attributed to Charles Willson Peale. (Maryland State Archives, Baltimore Sun / October 31, 2011)

Imagine driving into Annapolis along Rowe Boulevard or sailing into the city's harbor, glancing up toward the tiered State House dome, and seeing that it's colored not in the brick red and Colonial white you've known your entire life, but in lemon gold, muted blue and honey bordering on apricot.

Sound like something from a weird dream? It's not. When George Washington strode inside to resign his commission in 1783, when the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris there, ending the Revolutionary War, and when the British sailed up the Chesapeake to sack Baltimore in 1814, those were the colors they saw.

So found a team of workers as they stripped away paint layers during an $800,000 maintenance project this summer.

The discovery sparked a debate that has been raging in Annapolis, pitting preservationists against each other: When workers get to the repainting stage of the seven-month project, which look should they give it: cozy Americana or radical pastel?

Some said it would be ill-advised, even rash, to employ the crazier colors. "Would it be entertaining? Yes. … We found no way to justify it," says J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust, which decides such things.

Others wanted bolder action.

"I've seen this kind of thing my whole career. You look for historical accuracy, you turn up something you don't like, and you lack the courage to follow through on your findings," counters Roger W. Moss, director of the Athenaeum in Philadelphia and one of America's top experts on paint in historic preservation. "Thirty years from now, someone more imaginative will come along, see how silly this all was, and return that dome to its original colors."

For now, the choice has been made: During the next week or so, when workers add the coats that should last for at least three decades, they'll do it in white.

Still, that plan is going over like a bucket of spilled paint with some respected thinkers. Even now, they're trying to make their voices heard.

A dig in the sky

Built between 1772 and 1797 (construction was interrupted by the war, among other things), the Maryland State House came almost right away to symbolize the ideals of a new nation: freedom, the authority of government rather than religion, the right to choose leaders.

For two years, 1783-1784, it served as the nation's capital. 

"This building is not just a state icon. It's a national treasure," says Doug Dawson, the Maryland Department of General Services engineer who has supervised the recent maintenance project.

The dome — actually a stack of hexagons that towers 121 feet above the roof — was added during the 1780s, when the General Assembly decided that such a consequential building needed more grandeur. It has dominated the skyline for 223 years.

A famous Colonial-era artist, Charles Willson Peale, illustrated it in 1788, creating a color engraving that showed the structure in an aspect that strikes the modern eye as bizarre: gold around the base, bluish-gray the next tier higher, honey and gold in alternating order the rest of the way up.

For a structure so familiar, the dome has held a lot of secrets.  

The man who designed it, architect Joseph Clark, was like most builders of his time: He left few records as to how he worked. Its sides are so steep and awkward to climb that workers have scaled it only occasionally over the years, and even then mostly for localized repairs.

"If you wanted to study [the exterior], you've pretty much had to look through binoculars and guess," says Annapolis conservator John Greenwalt Lee.

This summer, that changed. The project's goal was to find failing paint, strip it and add outer layers that would last. In today's preservation world, that meant setting up scaffolding, performing forensic analysis and working up a structural study of sorts — in this case, the first ever done on the dome's whole surface.