Behind the Scenes at the Vermont State House

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(Host introduction) When lawmakers returned to Montpelier this week, the State House looked much as they’d left it. But as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, Vermont’s State House undergoes a series of changes before and after each session.

(Zind) There is no calm before the storm in the days leading up to the session. The State House is busy with last minute preparations. Except for the legislators, practically everyone who works in the building is already here.

(Sound of cutting open boxes, setting books on table.)

(Zind) In the House and Senate chambers, the doorkeepers are piling materials on legislators’ desks. The doorkeepers are responsible for keeping the wheels greased, making sure the legislators have the materials they need to conduct business.

(Doorkeeper) “112 is still empty. We don’t know about Senator Snelling yet.”

(Zind) Before the session can begin, the State House has to be transformed from a tourist attraction to a workplace. The gift shop becomes a coatroom and mailroom. The legislators’ mailboxes are pulled out of storage and set up in a corner. Kermit Spaulding is the Sergeant of Arms:

(Spaulding) “Few people realize how much mail we handle. When they get in full session, we’ll average around 2,000 items a day. With the civil union issue, we were probably averaging 20,000-24,000 a day.”

(Zind) Spaulding says there are always hitches in the transition from tourist season to legislative session. This year, the heavy mats that protect the State House floors during the session turned up missing. New ones had to be ordered in a hurry.

The State House is full of historic paintings, sculpture, furniture and fixtures. David Shutz is in charge of their care. He’s the state curator. Shutz says it’s a challenge to keep everything in working order:

(David Shutz) “The antique furniture is in daily use by people. It isn’t on display. We have to in fact conserve the original furniture of this building in such a way that it will withstand that very heavy kind of use.”

(Zind) Shutz admits he’s a fussbudget. He straightens paintings, moves furniture and inspects corners for dust. Before the session begins, he makes subtle changes to the way the State House looks.

(Shutz talking to a colleague) “Becky, we’re putting this painting up only for this week¿”

(Zind) This is the first year since the completion of a 20-year renovation of the State House. Shutz says it’s been easier to get ready for the session without the clutter and dust of the work. Despite his attention to its valuable contents, Shutz says what makes the State House significant is not what it contains, but what goes on under Vermont’s golden dome.

(Shutz) ” That is what makes the statehouse special and take away the occupants and what goes on here and it wouldn’t be half as special.”

(Zind) Shutz says today, the State House looks much as it did 140 years ago. Balancing its historic qualities with the modern demands of Vermont’s part-time legislature is a full-time job.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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