One of Sen. Angus King’s photos that will appear in an exhibit about the U.S. Capitol dome at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland. Photo by Angus King

For three years, Sen. Angus King of Maine observed the ongoing work to restore the cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., unaware that a craftsman with ties to Maine was leading the effort to return the landmark to its magnificence.

He watched as a mountain of scaffolding was erected around the dome’s exterior, and each day sparked a new question in the senator’s mind about details, scope and challenges of the project. On Friday, King will have a chance to get answers to his questions, when he introduces Robert Baird of Brooklin at the 2019 Sparrow Lecture at Portland’s Mechanics’ Hall, presented by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association.

Baird led preservationists and craftsmen on the Capitol Dome Restoration Project through his position as vice president of operations for Historical Arts & Casting Inc., an architectural and metalwork company that his brothers and father founded in Utah in the 1970s. Baird has been coming to Maine since the early 1990s and moved here after the Capitol dome project was completed in late 2016.

King can’t wait to meet him.

“He started coming to Maine many years ago, but I don’t know him,” King said. “I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.”

The talk, at 7 p.m. Friday, is a fundraiser for the Mechanics’ Hall. The lecture is named in honor of Thomas J. Sparrow, a member of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, who designed the Mechanics’ Hall. The building was commissioned in 1856, and it opened in 1859, during the same period when the Capitol dome was being constructed in Washington.

The Capitol dome took 11 years to build, beginning in 1855, and consists of two domes, the exterior dome and an interior dome, which are fastened with iron trusses. King loves both domes, and posts photos of of the interior and exterior frequently on his Instagram account. He included several dome images in his photography book from last year, “A Senator’s Eye,” published by Islandport Press.

He called the interior of the dome “one of the iconic places” in the world.

“The word awesome is overused, but the interior of the Capitol Rotunda is one of the most awe-inspiring interior spaces in the world,” King said, ranking it alongside the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. “I will walk over and watch people walk in for the first time, and invariably they look up and say, ‘Wow,’ or some variation thereof. It’s just an incredible place. It’s an inspiring place to work, and it’s also a daunting place to work. The whole building is so magnificent. It’s a shame our work doesn’t measure up to the magnificence of our surroundings. The building was built to inspire not only the population of the United States, but the people who work here. I am afraid lately we haven’t been executing on the inspiration.”

Baird’s lecture coincides with “Capitol Craft: The Artisans and Tradespeople Who Built and Restored the U.S. Capitol Dome,” curated by Baird and Bruce Brown of Portland. The exhibition, on view through November, includes photographs by Charles Badal of the tradespeople who worked on the project, as well as several large-format prints of original drawings by architect Thomas U. Walter and cast-iron replicas of the detailed dome adornments, including an ailanthus leaf, a floral bud and a rosette on loan from Baird. Several of King’s photos also will be displayed.

The exhibition is mounted in the Mechanics’ Hall classroom. “For several years in our history this is where mechanical drawing classes were held, so it feels particularly appropriate,” said Annie Leahy, executive director of the Mechanics’ Hall. “When you walk into the room your eye is immediately drawn to the chalkboard where six colorful reproductions of Walter’s original architectural drawings hang. The details of these drawings are breathtaking.”

Baird, 61, said the Capitol project was one “I was completely prepared to do. I had been in the cast-iron restoration industry almost 40 years.”

He hired a team of young artisans, trained them, and they spent three years replicating broken or missing ornamental elements of the dome, which weighs nearly 9 million pounds and measures almost 200 feet in height from its skirt to the base of the Statue of Freedom. “They had all been to school, but they didn’t have any serious work behind their belt. But they were ambitious,” he said. “I brought this team of craftspeople together, and it was kind of like a dream team and I was kind of their mentor.”

He will talk about challenges they faced and how they overcame them to meet their deadline, which was the presidential inaugural of 2017.

In his introduction, King plans to talk about his fascination with the dome, the Capitol and the restoration project. He’s particularly interested in the Statue of Freedom, which stands atop the dome. “It’s a woman facing east, with a helmet. In the original design, she was going to have a little cap, a soft cap flopped over one side” representing the “cap of freedom” that was popularized during the French Revolution, King said.

Jefferson Davis, who was secretary of war and a U.S. senator from Mississippi, oversaw the Capitol project before he left the Senate to become president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. “Davis rejected the design, because of the cap. It could be taken as a symbol of freeing the slaves,” King said. “That is why she has a helmet and not the famous French cap.”

For Baird, the Capitol dome was just one of his projects of national historical significance. His company also restored the metalwork, ticket windows and chandeliers at Grand Central Station in New York, exterior furniture at the Statue of Liberty and the bridges of Central Park. He recently worked on the 1895 Odd Fellows Hall in Brooklin.

He and his wife moved to Maine to live year round after the Capitol dome project, and since then, their kids and grandkids have followed them to Brooklin.

Leahy said the lecture and exhibition perfectly align with the values and history and mission of the Mechanics’ Hall, which was a gathering place for carpenters, painters, woodworkers, engineers, blacksmiths and architects. “We don’t often think about construction workers and tradespeople as artisans, but they are, and that comes through in this show. When you think about what the Capitol represents – the ideals that guide us as a country – that dome is a masterpiece. It is an architectural and artistic expression of democracy,” she said.

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