By Brian C. Jones
Rhode Island Library Report
PROVIDENCE – Librarians, who guide the rest of us to literary heights, were themselves recently led on a daunting climb – to the lofty lair of no less a legend than the Independent Man.
In other words, they climbed up the Rhode Island State House dome, a height – measured in Ocean State terms - of 235 feet above sea level.
It’s a trip that few Rhode Islanders get to make. Unlike regular State House tours, this one is infrequent and involves special advance arrangements.
Fortunately for members of the Consortium of Rhode Island Academic and Research Libraries, their numbers include Tom Evans, the state librarian.
Evans unlocked a hidden-in-plain-sight doorway, revealing a stairway that might give even Jack-of-the-Beanstalk second thoughts.
It’s the spiral kind, with metal treads winding around and around and around a central pole. It has 200 steps and is mischievously steep, rising 173 feet through a dimly-lighted brick-walled chamber that serves as the backstage for the Capitol dome.
The stairway has a practical purpose, to provide access for maintenance workers, including those who operate a winch that lowers the huge rotunda chandelier. (The librarians were too polite – or perhaps too winded – to ask Evans how many state workers it takes to change a chandelier light bulb).
The view improved at each stop, and the librarians were treated to new perspectives, for example, of the roof of the Providence Place mall, and to west, the glory of another famous Rhode Island landmark, the mountainous Central Landfill in Johnston.
The climb concluded when Evans opened a large circular hatch, which opens into the mini-dome that is the perch of the Independent Man, the 11-foot-high gold leaf statue that embodies the ornery spirit of residents of the first colony to declare independence and the last to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
But even at this level, the visitors still weren’t on an even footing with the Big Guy who was actually perched above them, atop the mini-dome and giving the State House its final measurement – 313 feet above mean high water.
Also, the statue was largely out of view - only the tip of its spear could be seen from the walkway.
The descent proved no less daunting, with the group’s members carefully picking their way down, single-file, one step at a time, flashlights still needed in darker spots, until they reached the secret door and the safety of the polished marble of the third floor.
Hikers seemed generally pleased with the tour, although a few, who said they bicycle or otherwise faithfully exercise, were chagrined at feeling a little wobbly, due to little-used muscles suddenly having been pressed into service.
Most elected to take the elevator the rest of the way down to the State House’s ground floor (78 feet above sea level).