MONTPELIER — Agriculture, the statuesque matriarch of the State House, was hoisted to lofty heights to retake her perch atop the golden dome on Friday.
It was the culmination of a six-month, $2 million restoration of the dome that involved re-gilding with 24-carat gold leaf, repainting the rotunda, and the carving of a new 14½-foot statue, symbolic of the state’s agrarian economy.
The event drew hundreds of spectators to witness the historic replacement of the statue, the third to grace the building in its 160-year history.
The new statue is a faithful reinterpretation of the 1858 original design by Brattleboro native Larkin Mead, which was carved by fellow Brattleboro native Johann Henkel. It lasted 80 years before wood rot required a replacement, provided in 1938 by Sergeant-at-Arms Dwight Dwinell and two other local woodcarvers. After another 80 years, it, too, rotted.
Enter Calais woodworker Chris Miller, to carve a new statue out of Central American mahogany based on a clay model by Jerry Williams, of Barre Sculpture Studios. The mahogany is disease- and water-resistant, and with careful maintenance is expected to long-outlast its pine predecessors.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere on Friday. Schoolchildren on an historic field trip mingled with state leaders, visitors and guests outside the State House to take selfies with the statue on the capitol grounds before it was hoisted into place.
The head of Dwinell’s model was also on display. There were souvenir wood chips from the new carving and free 802 Ceres coffee from Capitol Grounds, named for the colloquial name given to the second statue, representing the Roman goddess of agriculture. After formal ceremonies and the hoisting aloft of the statue, Bread and Puppet Theater staged a Druid circle with musical chants and rhythms on the State House lawn.
There were also Ceres-On-A-Stick bookmarks that became an online viral sensation to promote the statue project far beyond Vermont’s borders. Started by Montpelier resident Brenda Greika, Friday’s event was a crowning moment for her.
“I am honored, blessed and grateful that I’ve been made a part of Vermont’s history in an accidental way,” Greika said. “I just love this state and it means a lot to me, and when I look her, she’s all of that. She’s the godmother of the state.”
David Schutz, curator of state buildings, was in his element as he greeted colleagues, friends and visitors to the event.
I’m getting a little emotional, as I knew I would,” Schutz said. “We’re so incredibly proud of Chris and Jerry, who’ve done an absolutely phenomenal job creating this statue. It’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”
Miller was equally excited. “It is a big deal and it means a lot to everybody in Vermont,” he said.
How did Miller feel on the ceremonial day?
“Tired,” said Miller, who spent weeks working 12 hours a day to carve the statue. “It feels great. It all went as smoothly as it could in the time frame we had.”
Miller added that the best part of the process was having over 3,000 visitors to the Barre Granite Museum in Barre to watch him carve the statue.
Asked what’s next, Miller replied, “Vacation,” adding that he has four commissions in wood and that would keep him busy in the new year.
Miller’s son, Silas, was also on-hand to celebrate his father’s triumph.
“I think he’s put in his well-earned time and talent, and he’s been doing this for at least 30 years,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person to do this. He loves the state as much as anybody and it’s a really good situation.”
Williams, who based his clay model on the classic Hellenistic flowing drapery favored for Greek and Roman sculpture, was in celebratory mood.
“I think it’s the culmination of all the work and a pretty proud moment,” Williams said. “I didn’t think it would happen this soon. I really thought it wouldn’t happen until the spring, but Chris just kept hammering away.”
Master of ceremonies was Chris Cole, commissioner of buildings and general services. He thanked project architect Tricia Harper, Schutz, other state officials and contractors involved in the project, and legislators who funded it.
Gov. Phil Scott similarly thanked everyone involved and the public for showing up at the event to commemorate the refurbishment of “the most beautiful state house in the country.”
As the former owner of a construction company, Scott said he had enjoyed watching the complicated engineering to erect scaffolding to re-gild the State House dome from his office. Scott said he also got to ascend the summit of the State House to apply some of the gold leaf to the dome and had a chance to carve a few chips of wood from the statue during Miller’s work.
During the artist application process, Scott said it was important to him that Vermonters were involved in creating the new statue.
“I was thrilled to learn that Jerry Williams and Chris Miller, two Vermonters, were selected,” Scott said. “For the last several months, Chris and Jerry have worked extremely hard, working really long hours to deliver this piece.”
Last month, Scott named Williams and Miller winners of the 2018 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
There were also tributes from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, and the Montpelier High School Honor Choir sang “These Green Mountains.”
Schutz paid tribute to Vermont, which he said “stood the most for community, freedom and unity.”
“Curators have the great pleasure of being in touch with an incredible community of artists throughout this state,” he added before introducing Miller and Williams.
Miller thanked the governor and a long list of people involved in the project.
“The reason this statue is so beautiful is simply because Jerry designed it that way,” Miller said. “With all the many hours it took to carve this, I had a beautiful model to reference and measure from. Jerry had the hard job. He had to create this figure from thin air.”
After checking with other state capitals in the country, Miller also paid tribute to Schutz for being “the most determined, most creative, most visionary and goofiest curator in the country.”
Williams kept the humor going when he addressed the crowd.
“There must be a million, a million and a half of you out there,” said Williams.
Harper said afterward, “It’s been a lot of years waiting for this project to come into fruition, and I’m just happy I could be the architect on this project and that it’s been so successful.”
Miller said after the model was set in place: “It’s really great to see it up there.”
Williams added: “It happened, it happened.”