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I climbed the Dome

Claire Kelley | Friday, April 22, 2005

I believe I am the only undergraduate to climb the scaffolding on the Dome to the top this year. That is, the only student with permission.

First I had to sign my life away. I especially liked the part that said, “I hereby release, acquit and forever discharge the University… for any and all damages, losses or injuries (INCLUDING DEATH).”

Our guide was Tony Polotto, senior project manager for the University Architects. Ed Cohen and Matt Cashore from The Notre Dame Magazine had requested this ascent to the top and I was lucky enough to come along with them.

I consider myself mildly acrophobic (afraid of heights) but the scaffolding was very stable. With every few steps up the scaffolding stairs, the people on the ground became smaller and smaller until finally they looked like moving specks. I clung onto the railing with one hand and clutched my camera with the other.

At rooftop level we began to see the damage on the Main Building. Paint on the outside was flaking away. As I cautiously followed the others along the scaffolding walkway I saw a gold gleam in front of me and picked it up. It was a flake of gold leaf.

I suddenly felt like I understood the fervent obsession with gold that the forty-niners had. As we got closer to the top I began to pick up as much as I could and put it in my pocket. Polotto told us that only one bar of gold is used for all of the gilding on the dome and this amount of gold is valued at $109,000.

Once we reached Mary’s base (she is 18 feet high) we had to start climbing little ladders and then awkwardly clamber over the railing to get to the top. The size of Mary’s head is surprisingly huge and she has a lighting rod coming right out from the top of her head.

On that day Mary was being stripped of her shimmering top layer because putting more gold on top would not fix the cracks and damage to the statue. Workers were coating the gold surface with paint stripper and then scraping it off. Clumps of gold were falling on the snake, openmouthed in agony under Mary’s foot.

It is an utterly breathtaking view from the top scaffolding level. The perfectly symmetrical crisscrosses of the quad give way to the straight line of Notre Dame Avenue and the flat Indiana landscape beyond.

I think my favorite moment was looking over Mary’s shoulder to see the campus from her point of view. Waching over us and protecting us, she is our mother, Notre Dame.