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State House given protection from lightning

For first time in two centuries, building gets a lightning rod

Engineers involved with the project say that the new State House system, which includes other lightning rods in addition to the pine cone, is essential to protect the building.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Engineers involved with the project say that the new State House system, which includes other lightning rods in addition to the pine cone, is essential to protect the building.

It’s something Benjamin Franklin might have thought up: A lightning rod hidden in a historic golden pine cone perched at the apex of the state’s most iconic building.

But when the white tarp shrouding the top of the Massachusetts State House comes down in the next few weeks, that is exactly what will crown the hub of the Hub.

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Since the State House was completed in 1798, a gilded wooden pine cone has topped the cupola on the building’s famous dome. But oddly, a lightning rod was never added to the building atop Beacon Hill.

Building engineers, in an effort to modernize the building, decided to change that, embarking on a $400,000 refurbishment that will spiff up the cupola but also serve a practical purpose. The pine cone’s cap will now be metal instead of wood, a hidden wire snaking through the dome to the ground to protect it from electrical strikes.

Longtime employees of the State House could not recall lightning causing damage in recent years, nor had they found any reports of damage in the building’s long history. But engineers involved with the project said the new system — which includes other lightning rods in addition to the pine cone — is essential to ensuring the safety of the historic building for years to come.

“It’s a mark of stewardship — you do whatever you can to protect the building,” said Jean Carroon, an architect who was involved with a previous restoration of the State House that concluded in the early 2000s but did not take part in the current project.

Instances of any state houses across the country incurring serious damage from lightning appear extremely rare. But history shows calamitous strikes have happened.

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Maryland’s State House was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1699, splintering its flagstaff, shattering the window-frames, and knocking down people gathered inside, according to a state history published in the 19th century.

The cupola that sits atop the 215-year-old Massachusetts dome is not the original. It was twice replaced, most recently in 1897. Some version of a golden pine cone dates back to the beginning. “That harkens back to our association with Maine and with their pine forests,” explained Susan Greendyke Lachevre, the art collections manager at the State House who is familiar with the building’s history.

She noted some of the lumber used in the original building came from Maine, part of the Commonwealth until it became its own state in 1820.

The original pine cone was replaced over the years, but the design is close to what visitors to the State House in 1798 would have seen. A big difference: The dome wasn’t always gold.

The original State House dome was made of wood and began leaking almost immediately. To stop the water, the Legislature approved the purchase of copper from Paul Revere’s foundry, which was used to sheet the dome. But it was not until 1874 that the dome was gilded. That’s the way it has remained, except for during most of World War II when it was temporarily painted a dark grey to be less conspicuous to potential enemy ships in the harbor, according to the state’s official history of the dome.

The almost-completed upgrade is part of a more than $20 million dollar effort aimed at improving the State House roof and exterior.

Cheryl Morrissey, a state engineer who worked on the lightning-rod project, said it offers more of a modern-day defense for one of the city’s best-known landmarks. “Anything can happen,” Morrissey said. “We have to protect [the State House]. It’s basically the icon for Massachusetts.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.

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