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$125,000 renovation of Senate chamber underway will restore historic details

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 20. 2018 12:51AM
Senate Chief of Staff Kristy Merrill gazes at the ceiling of the Senate chambers, which will soon be restored to a more historically authentic plaster finish as part of a $125,000 renovation project. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD — When state senators held a special session last month to vote on a bill regarding internet sales taxes, they met in the Legislative Office Building across the street from the state capitol.

It was the first time in the 200-year history of the capitol building that senators met somewhere other than Senate chambers, except for a few weeks in the 1970s when they took their show on the road to various New Hampshire communities, according to State House historians.

They’ll reconvene in the LOB on Sept. 13, when they meet to vote on bills vetoed by Sununu.

The 24 lawmakers have been displaced by an ambitious $125,000 renovation project that will see a ceiling installed, along with new paint, carpeting, wiring and other upgrades to the main chamber, visitors gallery and two small adjoining rooms.

The work should be done by early November, according to Doug Dolcino, State House director of operations, who has served as clerk of the works for the project, in cooperation with Kristy Merrill, Senate chief of staff.

They brought in antique preservation expert John Indelicato, who also worked with Gov. John Lynch on improvements to the historic Bridges House, the state’s official gubernatorial residence.

Indelicato’s advice was particularly helpful in ensuring that the large murals behind the Senate rostrum are protected during the construction, and later cleaned to a newly painted sparkle, according to Merrill.

The four large murals, painted in 1942, replicate the shape of the arched windows that light the chamber, each depicting different events in New Hampshire history: the first commencement at Dartmouth College; Daniel Webster reading the United States Constitution; Abbott Thayer teaching an art class; and Gen. John Stark preparing for battle in the Revolution.

They will all be glowing with historical luster in time for the capitol building bicentennial in 2019, as will the rest of the Senate chamber. For now, each one is covered with three layers of protective foam board.

“That was one of the fist things they did, just to make sure we protected them, because with all the work going on and everything coming down, you could easily have something bump into them,” said Merrill, pointing to some dings on the foam board. “You can see it’s a good thing we have that protection.”

The State House Historical Committee is taking charge of the cleaning process, which is short of a full restoration but pretty intensive nonetheless, says Merrill, “It takes about 12 weeks, but when the murals are cleaned, they are going to be radiant.”

The centerpiece of the project is the new ceiling, which has been stripped down to its joists.

“One of the nice surprises so far is that the ceiling will cost less than we anticipated,” said Merrill, “which is good since that is the major thrust of the work being done ... the main point of all this.”

The ceiling demolition, nearly complete, will be followed by installation of blue board and three layers of plaster. “It’s not the same finish but will be in keeping with the plaster ceiling that was here,” and more authentic than the acoustic panels and fluorescent lights installed in the 1970s.

The visitors gallery on the third floor overlooking the chamber is also getting a fresh coat of paint, along with the adjacent clerk’s office and small foyer where senators grab a snack during prolonged sessions.

The Senate chairs are not being replaced, but will be reupholstered, along with electrical upgrades around the perimeter of the room and new wiring for the chandeliers. An ultraviolet coating is being added to the huge arched windows to help protect the new carpet and murals.

Most of the funding for the project comes from the state’s capital budget, although the Senate will be paying for some of the work out of its operating budget.

The upgrade is part of an overall effort to spruce up the State House in anticipation of its 200th anniversary next year.

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