Working with a View

Tim O’Neill talks with Bay Weekly about the restoration of Annapolis’ Capitol dome

Tim O’Neill of Severna Park is project manager for Power Component Systems out of Hanover. One of several subcontractors restoring the dome of Maryland’s State House — built between 1784 and 1787 as the second dome to top the 1772 Capitol — Power Component Systems has the job of stripping the top layers of paint from the Capitol’s dome.
Bay Weekly    What’s it like up there?
Tim O’Neill    I’ve been above the acorn with a full-body harness, higher than even the peak of the scaffolding, higher than anything in Annapolis — higher than the 181-foot-high top of the weathervane on the flagstaff.
    It’s cooler and windier than down below, but not enough to blow you off. This summer when it was hot and unbearable down on the ground, up there it was comfortable.

Bay Weekly    Is it scary?
Tim O’Neill    It’s just like being on ground for me. I’m not afraid of heights, but I don’t walk up out to the edge of a cliff. Walking up the stairs and onto the work decks, there’s no feeling of height. I don’t think anybody normally afraid of heights would be scared.
    It’s all compliant with federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations, and the crew has all had scaffold-safety training and fall-protection training.
    No harnesses are required because the scaffolding has toe boards and safety rails. As long as you don’t leave the enclosed scaffolding, you’re unharnessed.

Bay Weekly    The scaffolding is covered, so from down below we don’t see it …
Tim O’Neill    It’s covered with a net that’s 50 percent material and 50 percent air. It keeps the wind down and reduces evaporation on our paint remover. But a breeze still goes through the cover.

Bay Weekly    How’s the view?
Tim O’Neill    As everybody says, the view from up here is great. I can’t see far enough up the river to see my house in West Severna Park. But one day on the scaffold I looked out and saw a catamaran coming into Annapolis Harbor. My brother and his wife charter their catamaran, so I called him on the cell phone and asked, Are you coming into Annapolis now? And he was. I’m up here wearing an orange vest and waving, I told him.

Bay Weekly    The first dome on this capitol — itself the third Annapolis capitol — endured for only about a decade. This one’s been up there a lot longer. Architect Joseph Clark must have done his job well.
Tim O’Neill    It’s a fantastic structure, designed and built by maritime people, judging from the construction. A lot of interior beams are pegged — not nailed — together. Overall, it’s really in great shape. To quote Doug Dawson, the department of General Services representative on site, the building is a “national treasure.”
    The whole building can move and breathe.

Bay Weekly    You got to test the structural integrity …
Tim O’Neill    I was in the basement on August 23 when the earthquake hit, with a crew on the scaffold. Everybody was fine.

Bay Weekly    How big is this job?
Tim O’Neill    We’re working on a surface area of roughly 5,500-square-foot part of the dome painted white, basically from the roof of the regular building to the acorn. Our job is to remove only the [four coats of] latex paint down to the oil layers.
    We apply paint remover, let it work, scrape it off and do it again. After the second application is removed, we use a special piece of equipment that’s a power-washer and vacuum recovery. It pumps all the water gathered into drums on the ground, where it’s sampled for lead content. We haven’t had any.

Bay Weekly    How’s the job going?
Tim O’Neill    We’re down to the fourth level, the main barrel of the dome. The top section, called the lantern, is done.
    We’ll probably be working through October. Painting should have started, but as we remove old paint, we find some wood that’s not as healthy as thought, so the carpenters have gone back and done more work.

Bay Weekly    We’ve learned that a white dome is not historically authentic.
Tim O’Neill    The original colonial colors of golds and blues made a multi-colored dome. White was the cheapest way, so that’s what they did later.
    The paint on it protects the structure, so the color doesn’t matter as long as it’s a coating that protects this valuable structure.
    Editor’s note: White oil paint is in this year’s plan.

Bay Weekly    Inside the dome is another story?
Tim O’Neill    It’s a mess; beyond graffiti, as if everybody who’s ever been up has signed their name, including really neat calligraphy and signatures from the 1800s, when standards of penmanship were high. Mine’s up there, too.

Bay Weekly    What does it feel like on the job?
Tim O’Neill    Humbling ... quiet … serene ... You’re out there walking on a catwalk, where Jefferson, all these famous people have been.