Becca Balint: Touching history of our State House


The lovely Vermont State House can feel an awful lot like a museum. From its well-appointed rooms, to its impressive art collection and period appropriate carpet and drapes, the capitol building inspires reverence and contemplation. The portraits of former governors and Speakers of the House remind me how many heady conversations have sparkled in those rooms over the years. And when I sit whispering with colleagues, shoehorned into a cozy window seat in the Senate chambers, I know this scene has played itself out thousands of other times.

It's a great honor to walk those halls and touch the smooth mahogany colored banister that reaches up to the Senate's entrance. And the Cedar Creek room's expansive Civil War painting always stirs my pride in Vermont. The entire splendid building is a constant, poignant reminder that I am part of something much larger than myself. Regardless of the topic, my actions are significant because I'm now connected to Vermont's history and political tradition. I appreciate the weight of this realization.

Last week I remembered that the Golden Dome's lobby has fossils embedded in its marble floor. The black stones were quarried up in Isle La Motte; the white tiles came from Danby. I greeted the legislative pages and the Sergeant at Arms' assistants as my heels clicked over the ancient rock. Vermont's Senate and House chambers may be the nation's oldest state legislative rooms in their original condition, but the fossil floor reminds me that in the great expanse of time and space we are so very young. This is a great comfort to me we are just getting started.

By contrast, the great city of London is a wizened old aunt. Settled c.43 CE by the Romans and originally dubbed Londinium, archaeological evidence suggests that there were populated areas in that region that date back several thousand years. The recent building projects connected to the expansion of the London Underground subway system have transformed this bustling modern city into a massive archeological dig.

As Roff Smith says in the February 2016 edition of National Geographic, "Peel back the pavement of a grand old city like London and you can find just about anything, from a first century Roman fresco to a pair of medieval ice skates, and even an elephant's tooth." Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians, asserts Smith, have all had their own "urban renewal" projects. We are the beneficiaries of this fantastic historical layer cake.

As Londoners rebuild parts of their subway system, Brits are also planning a major renovation project for their House of Commons, House of Lords, and the rest of the Parliamentary Estate. Westminster Hall, part of Westminster Palace and the Parliamentary Estate, dates back to the year 1099. After fire destroyed much of the original Westminster Palace, the new Palace at Westminster was finished in 1852. (Our own statehouse was completed just 7 years later.) British parliamentarian David Winnick told NPR that it's costing British taxpayers between $40 and $80 million a year just to keep the parliament building functional, due to hundreds of years of deferred maintenance. If MPs choose to continue to hold their sessions in the building during the renovations, it will cost upwards of $8 billion and take 32 years to complete the work. If they relocate and hold parliament elsewhere, it would still take about 6 years to do the work.

Either way, there is no question they will repair their historic building. They understand, as we do, that the affection and respect we hold for our statehouse is a palpable connection to both our humble past and our glorious aspirations.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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