The Ether Dome:
The restoration of an icon
Specialists carefully scraped and packaged
specimens. They analyzed the samples using advanced computer technology.
Then, based on the analysis, they meticulously repaired the damage
What might sound like a description
of a surgical procedure is a recap of one of the thousands of steps
involved in restoring the MGH Ether Dome the crowning structural
feature of the first building of the hospital in time for
the 150th anniversary of the first successful demonstration of ether
Ether Dome was designated a National Historic Site in 1965. In 1971
the Bulfinch Building was added to the roster of National Historic
The specimens collected were in fact
paint chips from the early 19th century that yielded clues to the
original color scheme of the Ether Dome. Following those clues,
design and architectural specialists ascertained the pigments and
hues and replicated as closely as possible the original look of
the room. In similar fashion, each area of the room has been restored.
again the unofficial symbol of the MGH is a shining testimony
to a glorious moment in medical history.
This latest project is not the first
time the Ether Dome has been altered and updated to meet changing
needs and technologies since the cornerstone of the Bulfinch Building
was laid July 4, 1818. Between 1821 and 1868 more than 8,000 operations
were performed in the chamber one door still bears the words
Operating Room. Since then, the dome served as a storage
area until 1873, a dormitory until 1889, a dining room for nurses
until 1892, and most recently as a teaching amphitheater.
Designed by architect Charles Bulfinch,
the construction of the Bulfinch Building was completed under the
direction of Alexander Parris when Bulfinch was called upon to the
design the nations Capitol.
This latest renovation sought to restore
as much of the room as possible while updating the site for current
and future uses new audio-visual facilities for slide projection
as well as telecommunication and sound controls have been installed.
cast statue of Apollo that today stands in the Ether Dome was given
to the MGH in March 1845 by the Honorable Edward Everett. In exchange,
the hospital trustees presented to him their grateful acknowledgments
for his beautiful gift, valuable as a memorial, that, amidst his
arduous public duties in a foreign country, Mr. Everett feels an
undiminished interest in the charitable institutions of his native
land. The statue was crafted in the Louvre in Paris, France.
To accomplish a true restoration, architects
and designers relied on historical documents and photos as well
as clues from the current room. Early daguerreotype images of the
room show that the original floor was made of wooden strips approximately
five inches wide, which were replaced with concrete as part of a
1930s overhaul focused on bringing the site up to safety and fire
codes. The cork floor seen in recent years has now been replaced
with five-inch wide oak floor boards replicating the original pattern.
In that major 1930s renovation, the
wooden-tiered seating was replaced with steel tiers. Although the
seats have always been steeply arranged, originally there were seven
rows of benches. Uncomfortably tight leg room inspired a change,
and in 1939 only five rows were installed. In 1956 a sixth row of
bicycle seats was added to the rear, and three curved benches were
added at the front.
Originally lit naturally by sunlight,
the Ether Dome has been modified to keep up with changing technology,
first in 1849 when gas lanterns were introduced to the hospital,
and again in the late-19th century when electrical lights were installed.
In a 1956 renovation, the 1930s crook-necked lamps at each side
of the amphitheater base were removed. New light fixtures were added
along with motorized louvers at the skylight. All of the windows
in the cupola at the top of the dome were re-placed. With this latest
restoration the interior of the dome and cupola are now lit by special
lighting, including a new ring of lighting at the base of the cupola.
the dome itself proved more complex than initially anticipated,
says Carleton Nickerson Goff of Planning and Construction. At
the start of the project, it was our intent to refurbish the cupola.
But extensive rotting made replacing all of the structure supporting
the dome necessary. All new work has, however, been completed to
match the original design.
Presenting a grand aesthetic
cap to the entire refurbishing project, the copper dome over the
cupola has been cleaned and polished, says Goff. Once again
the unofficial symbol of the MGH is a shining testimony to a gloriuos
moment in medical hitory.
Known as the
surgical amphitheater until Morton and Warrens triumphant
surgery in 1846, the name Ether Dome came into popular use soon
thereafter. No record exists, however, of who coined the name or