A Rare View: Take A Look Inside the N.H. State House Dome

May 9, 2017

Speaker Shawn Jasper and Senator James Gray in the State House dome.
Credit Senator Kevin Avard

The New Hampshire State House has an open-door policy. The building is part museum – and visitors are welcome to take in the living history. But some of the most interesting places are kept under lock and key.

There’s a door on the third floor of the New Hampshire State House; Room 320. It reads, “No Admittance,” in chipped back lettering. On an overcast day in April, Speaker of the House Shawn Jasper and his Chief of Staff, Terry Pfaff, unlocked the door. It leads to the dome.

As he turns the key, Terry Pfaff cautions us to mind our heads on the way up; the Speaker has had some bad luck in the past.

"Yes, I’ve hit my – I actually have cut my head open up there…" Jasper confirms. We pause as two Senators, James Gray and Kevin Avard, ask if they can join the expedition. Neither has ever been above the third floor.

As it turns out, Room 320  is actually a stairwell about the width of a janitor’s closet, with narrow wrought iron steps leading to the roof. Opening the access door, Pfaff points out the security cameras.

"You’re under surveillance, just so you know," Pfaff says, strolling onto the massive flat roof, "We have eyes on the top of the building in a couple of places."

Avard, Gray, Jasper and Pfaff survey the land.
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

From here, we have a panoramic view of Concord.  The lawmakers pause for pictures with the dome just behind them. New Hampshire’s iconic gold leaf dome was recently renovated inside and out, and it took two years and two and a half million dollars to restore it to gleaming condition. We cross the roof to the entrance of the dome. 

Pfaff leads the way through a short hallway to a nondescript industrial door. Behind it, to either side of us, lies the attic of the State House. We step into a dark, dusty, space; a maze old wood, wiring, and reinforcing beams left over from the renovation. Jasper tells us at one point that we're standing over Reps Hall. Terry Pfaff points into a dim recess, shining the light from his smart phone into the dark.

"I don’t know if you can see it actually, that far," Terry says, "See the half round? That’s the old State House. The original one. The portico’s built over the top of that."

The original State House, built in 1819, was considerably smaller and more modest than the towering granite building that sits here today.  It was also without a dome - a deficiency that was remedied with a huge addition during the Civil War. When they built the dome, just a few floors above our heads now, they rested it unsecured, held in place by its own weight. Like the turret on a battleship.

Terry Pfaff takes in the view from the first floor of the dome.
Credit NHPR/Hannah McCarthy

Pfaff beckons us to follow him as he opens another, narrower door to a cramped spiral staircase. We climb twisting steps that seem to go on forever. And then, we're in the drum. That's the lower part of the dome, a room with large arched windows.

The space is bright and carpeted, with lanterns hanging from the high ceiling.  There’s even a bench for leisurely viewing out the big windows. It’s pretty quiet up here these days, but Jasper says it wasn’t always this way.

"Back in the days when everybody wasn’t afraid of their own shadow," the Speaker explains, "Mrs. Thompson would have tea parties up here."

That’s Gale Thomson, wife of former Governor Mel Thomson. It’s hard to imagine climbing those stairs in heels – let alone with trays of tea cups. The days of dome parties are long over – and there aren’t any plans to revive them. But the space still offers one perk for the few who make it up to the next floor, into the dome itself.

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Click and drag to explore the dome.

We climb another flight into a space that looks like the interior of a ship's hull, but flipped upside down. Dimly lit by porthole windows, you can make out signatures on the curved walls of the dome’s interior. They’re scrawled in marker and pen, carved into the wood, or painted in block letters. The names of governors, senators, representatives, and State House employees cover the walls and windowsills, dating back to the early 20th century. But the truly coveted place to leave your John Hancock is one floor up.

One at a time, we take one last, shorter, set of stairs into the tiny cupola – called the “lantern.” You can’t get any higher in Concord – unless, of  course, you’re a gilded eagle. On a landing just big enough for one, you get a slightly dizzying view of the city from far above. And, if Terry Pfaff happens to have a pen on him, you might just be invited to join the names of State House residents over the years.

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Click and drag to explore the lantern.

At some point, Pfaff checks his watch. It's time to wrap up the field trip and get the Speaker downstairs. For most people, dome access comes with the caveat of being a civil servant with a ton of work.

Making their way back to the busy third floor, Pfaff and Avard reflect on their place in the building's long life.

"There's a lot of history here," Pfaff murmurs.

"Yeah, it's kind of cool to be a part of it, too," Avard adds.

"It is," says Pfaff, "It really is quite a club."

For a bunch of lawmakers, a visit to the dome did a pretty good job of keeping things a-political. Though, as the lawmakers joke once we're on the third floor, if the Speaker takes you up to the roof to have a "conversation"? Hold on to the railing.

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Click and drag to explore the State House roof.