Regilding the Dome

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Author: Ed Cohen

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When fire broke out in the upper reaches of the Main Building the morning of April 23, 1879, the building might have escaped the destruction that ensued but for a theologically disconcerting sequence of events.

Among the first parts of the brick building to be consumed were timbers holding up the 12-foot-tall, 2,000-pound statue of the Virgin Mary that stood atop the building’s dome, a wooden structure sheathed in tin and painted white. When the supports burned through, the sculpture of Mary went plunging down into the core of building, pushing flaming timbers ahead of her and igniting the interior. It must have been an unnerving sight for the faithful to behold.

One man saw the hand of Providence.

After inspecting the ruins, Notre Dame founder Father Edward Sorin, CSC, took the blame. Sorin, then 65, said he was responsible for the blaze—the origins of which were never pinpointed— for having had too puny a vision for an institution named after the mother of God.

The Main Building would be built, he promised, and this time not with some crummy painted white dome on top. It would be crowned with a golden dome and a golden statue, bigger than before, “so that everyone who passes this way can look up and see why this place succeeds.”

Now, 126 years later, as the Golden Dome and golden statue undergo their 10th regilding, Sorin’s instinct for outdoor advertising looks, as usual, prescient. The little Catholic boarding school in the middle of nowhere has become known around the world, and the cap on the Main Building remains its most revered symbol.

No doubt Sorin would be pleased by how well his gleaming beacon of Marian devotion has worked. He might even delight in the headaches its upkeep has sometimes caused the school’s administrators. As happened earlier this year.

Many graduating seniors became angry in March when they learned that the Dome would be obscured by scaffolding commencement weekend. The regilding and other repair work was scheduled to stretch into August with several additional weeks of cleanup. The pipework would ruin their graduation-day photos with family members in front of the Main Building, some wailed. (Others, the minority, thought it was no big deal and might actually make a more interesting picture.) The furor subsided only after Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves announced that a way had been found to lower the scaffolding partway for commencement.

What administrators tried to explain, and few of the complainers grasped, is how complicated, expensive and time-consuming it is to regild the Dome. And that this facelift involves a lot more than coating Mary and her exalted perch in a fresh layer of gold.

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On an unseasonably warm, blue-sky afternoon in the middle of April, three workmen stand upon a platform suspended nearly 200 feet above the paths and new spring grass of the Main Quad. The octagonal workspace surrounds the enormous statue of Our Lady—18 feet 7 inches tall—around the level of the statue’s base. There’s one platform higher still, above their heads, which meets Mary at about her midsection.

The workers, employees of restoration specialist Conrad Schmitt Studios, have already coated a section of the figure’s shining metallic robe with thick liquid from a boxy gallon can bearing the impressive product name “Aircraft Remover.” Now they set about raking at the gold surface with paint scrapers and wire brushes, exposing the dark gray of cast iron underneath. Curls and flakes of gold, coated with the harsh chemical stripping agent, accumulate at the statue’s base and among the coils and complaining mouth of a motionless golden serpent.

In Catholic doctrine Mary is sometimes referred to as the New Eve or the Immaculate Conception because of the belief that she was born, like Eve, absent of sin. That’s probably why on the Dome the artist chose to depict her as squashing a snake. Flanking her ankles are the tips of a crescent new moon. They grow up from the rounded surface of her pedestal, like baby horns on a Viking helmet. Some believe this was intended as an allusion to the origins of the word crescent in Old French, creistre, meaning “to grow.” That was certainly Sorin’s hope for Notre Dame. But it doesn’t matter much what the sculptor had in mind. In a case of questionable artistic foresight, neither design element is noticeable from the ground.

Conrad Schmitt, based in New Berlin, Wisconsin, has been involved in many restoration projects on campus over the years. Especially memorable is the work the studio did on the Main Building interior renovation in the late 1990s. Among other jobs, its artists painted a simulated fringe on the tapestry-like panels of the Columbus murals. They hid Kermit the Frog, a belly dancer and other playful images among the “tassels.” The curiosities have become essential point-outs for tour guides.

But during this early phase of the Dome regilding, the artists are focused more on subtraction than addition. As they describe to a visitor the challenges of stripping the statue of its golden skin, they continually refer to the figure with feminine pronouns: “She’s in pretty good shape.” “Her hair was a little difficult.” Asked if they think of the inanimate object as female, they all say yes. “I gave her a kiss when I got up here,” volunteers artist Will Kolstad, who, for the record, says he is not Catholic.

The Mary statue is modeled on a statue titled the Immaculate Conception that stands atop of a pillar in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. It was erected in 1854 following adoption of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

According to Sorin biographer Father Marvin R. O’Connell, Notre Dame’s ambitious founder wanted to buy a facsimile of the sculpture for the top of the new Main Building but found the prices in Rome too steep. He turned instead to a Chicago artist named Giovanni Meli.

The statue was paid for by donations from the nuns, students and alumnae of Saint Mary’s College. It arrived on campus in July 1880, was placed on the front porch of the Main Building, and remained there for roughly two years. The building had reopened in time for the return of students in the fall of 1879, but the Dome would not be finished until 1882.

The Dome and statue almost ended up not being gilded. Rebuilding the Main Building had cost the University more than $1 million, and despite generous and far-reaching donations of money, labor and materials, the University found itself in debt. In his history of the Main Building, A Dome of Learning, American studies professor Thomas J. Schlereth writes that the Holy Cross community’s Council of Administration for Notre Dame deemed gilding to be too great an extravagance. One member suggested they paint the Dome gold, but Sorin wouldn’t hear of it. The council also refused to budge.

The deadlock lasted into 1886, when Sorin tried a procedural end run. Using his position as superior general of the Holy Cross community, he named himself to the committee and then asked to be made chairman. The members agreed. He then began boycotting meetings. The group could convene in his absence but could not legally conduct business without the chairman present.

Sorin had moved into temporary quarters at Saint Mary’s and was refusing to come back to campus until the council consented to gilding the Dome. Weeks passed. The business of the University and community came to a halt. Finally, enough votes were assembled to push the measure through, and a delegation was sent to Saint Mary’s to bring the University’s stubborn founder home.

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To pay for the gilding, Sorin wrote a letter asking supporters for $4,000. Surprisingly, the project ended up costing only $2,000, according to records in the University Archives. Since then the price has gone up dramatically. By 1948 it had increased tenfold.

This year’s regilding is part of a much larger project expected to cost $300,000 and take about seven months. Erecting the massive scaffolding alone took three weeks and required the services of a licensed structural engineer, according to Anthony Polotto, senior project manager in the University Architect’s office.

As might have been predicted, soon after the pipework tower was in place, students began scaling a locked gate at night and making their way to the top. One student, speaking on condition of anonymity, described to a reporter from The Observer the “huge adrenaline rush” of sneaking in and out and climbing up to actually touch the Golden Dome. For safety reasons, guards were eventually posted outside the gate at night.

Gilding involves covering a surface with gold leaf, a material less than 3 microns, or millionths of a meter, thick. Gold is so malleable that it’s said that a ball the size of a pea can be hammered out into enough gold leaf to cover an acre.

All the 23.9-karat gold leaf expected to be expended on the Dome, the statue of Mary and the pedestal in between amounts to less than eight ounces, yet the bill for gold materials for the project was estimated at $109,000. That’s because gold leaf is labor-intensive to produce, says Doug Marsh ’82, University architect.

It’s also labor-intensive to apply. Here’s how they do it, as described by Polotto:

As in any resurfacing job, meticulous preparation is necessary for a quality finish. After stripping the old gold leaf from the Mary statue, the artists from Conrad Schmitt douse the surface with laquer thinner to neutralize the stripper residue and then wash and rinse the surface with soap and water. All cracks are repaired and then a coat of primer is applied. This is followed by sizing, which is a kind of glue to which the gold leaf will adhere. The primer and sizing are both yellow, so if a bit of gold ever flakes off of the statue it won’t be especially noticeable. The shades of yellow are different enough so that in applying the sizing over the primer the artists can tell if they’ve missed a spot.

Gold leaf comes on rolls of paper 3 1/8 inches wide. The artists unroll a length, position it over the metal and then press it against the sizing-coated surface by pushing at the back of the paper with a cotton ball. Gold leaf sticks only where there’s sizing, and it won’t stick to other gold, so there’s no waste from overlapping.

Because the material is so delicate, it can be applied only on calm days. That’s one of the reasons administrators were reluctant to interrupt work for commencement. There are only so many calm days between March and September in South Bend.

After covering the statue as thoroughly as possible with the strips, the artists go back over the surface with soft brushes, nudging the gold into any slivers of exposed metal and smoothing down the edges of the strips. The last step is polishing the surface with cotton. The finished surface shows no lines from the strips and, in fact, looks as if it’s been spray painted or dipped in gold.

Marsh says Conrad Schmitt recommended stripping off the previous layer of gold leaf on Mary because the zinc-coated cast iron of the statue’s surface is very porous. That makes it more likely that pieces of gold will flake off. Adding on the weight of more layers would only increase the chances of pieces coming off, they said.

Unlike the statue, the surface of the Dome is made up of plates of smooth galvanized steel. So the plan for regilding it was merely to clean and neutralize the surfaces, apply a clear coat of sizing and then add another layer of gold leaf.

The Dome has been regilded nine times since 1886 at widely varying intervals. The shortest was the first, after seven years, in 1893. The longest have been two most recent—1971 to 1988 and from then until the present. According to Polotto, improved techniques and materials have helped extend the life span of the surfaces.

Why is regilding necessary? Because gold leaf wears away or is knocked off over time, Polotto says. Bird droppings contain acid that eats away at the surface. (Pigeons and sea gulls perch on Mary unless hawks are around.) Chunks of ice and snow sometimes break off from the statue and bash the plates of the upper Dome on the way down. Sometimes it hails. Dust in the air combines with the stronger winds at the height of the Dome to create a sandblasting effect.

Blots of chipped-off gold would be invisible from the ground, but if the surface was allowed to deteriorate long enough, structural damage would result, Polotto says.

Marsh says it’s not feasible to reclaim the precious metal as it wears away—filtering gold out of rainwater in down spouts, for example. The concentrations are too small.

“[It] would be like catching a strand of silk in the air or pollen as it is airborne.”

Neither is recycling the gold leaf stripped from the statue. That’s because the layers of gold, sizing and primer all come away in one hunk. Polotto recalls collecting a bag of the scraped-off material as a souvenir on one of his early trips up to the work platforms.

“You look down and you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got a whole handful of gold,’ but it’s probably worth nickels.”

After the new gold leaf has been applied, no one, not even the artists from Conrad Schmitt, is allowed to touch it, he says. “The salts and oils in your hand will make a black spot that actually grows. In six months it will be a big black spot.”

Some of the seniors who objected to the scaffold being up during commencement pointed out that the last time the Dome was regilded, in 1988, the work didn’t start until after graduation. That wasn’t possible this time because more work is involved. Phase 1 of the project was regilding the statue and Dome and reinforcing the statue’s base with structural steel. The final phase will be to paint a metal strip surrounding the building’s fifth-floor mansard roof.

In between, crews will attack the “drum” or tower that extends from the roof to the golden parts of the Dome. The drum is made up of elaborate stone elements: window frames, pediments, Doric columns, blocks. But it’s all an illusion. The entire exterior, according to Schlereth’s book, was fabricated from painted sheet iron formed and stamped to look like stone. In the 1960s the elements were given a new skin of galvanized steel.

Over the years that metal has been painted and repainted, most recently in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the paint has begun peeling away at the level of the bare metal, a phenomenon called “delaminating,” Polotto says. For that reason, plans call for stripping the metal entirely of paint and then applying a special primer made for galvanized steel. This will be followed by a top coat of high-performance paint similar to that used on cars, he says.

The Dome and statue will still need to be regilded every 15 to 20 years. But if all goes as expected, it will be 50 years before the University has to combine a regilding job with a complete overhaul of the drum and have to encage Mary and her perch in scaffolding from spring to fall. Until then peace and unspoiled photographs will reign.

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.

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