The Massachusetts State House

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Bulfinch's Boston/The Massachusetts State House
City of Boston Arts
Written By City of Boston Arts

The Mayor's Office of Arts + Culture for Boston. We foster the growth of the cultural community in Boston and promote participation in the arts.

One of the defining projects of Charles Bulfinch's career, the Massachusetts State House was completed in 1798 on land previously owned by John Hancock to replace the Old State House near Faneuil Hall. It is still home to the state legislature and the office of the governor and offers tours to the public.

Charles Bulfinch grew up in the town of Boston during the Revolutionary War, and even witnessed the battle of Bunker Hill from his family’s roof. The son and grandson of well-known physicians, he graduated from Harvard College, but formal training in architecture did not yet exist in the US. Like many early American artists, he educated himself with a journey to Europe, specifically England, France, and Italy. Not long after he returned in 1787, he sent a proposal to the Massachusetts legislature (then called the General Court) for a new state house.

Bulfinch became one of the United States’ first professional architects, designing churches and residences, and also one of our first city planners, creating master plans for blocks and neighborhoods. He introduced connected row houses to Boston with Franklin Place, a development that featured a crescent-shaped row of upscale homes.

Bulfinch also shaped Boston as an active figure in town government. As a member and later chairman of the Board of Selectmen, he helped to establish public education in Boston and to improve the police force, also serving as the city’s first Superintendent of Police. He also worked to repeal a Puritan-era law banning theatrical performances in Boston and designed Boston’s first theater.

In 1794 Bulfinch got the news that the General Court had approved his proposal for the Massachusetts State House, seven years after he submitted it, and would hire Bulfinch to oversee the project. This may have been spurred on by the fact that the Connecticut legislature had just approved a proposal by Bulfinch for their state house. The two state houses were Bulfinch’s first two public buildings, and the jobs came just in time—he had gone bankrupt due to an unusual financing scheme for the Franklin Place project, and even spent time in debtor’s prison while he was serving as a selectman. Bulfinch would later design the Maine State House, establishing a style that would influence state houses throughout the country.

Construction of the State House began on July 4, 1795. The cornerstone was ceremonially hauled to the site by 15 white horses representing the then 15 states of the Union and laid in place by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.

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The building's main entrance, now named after Bulfinch, is only used on special occasions such as a visit from the president. When President James Monroe came to Boston in 1817, Bulfinch, in his roles as selectman and chair of the welcoming committee, accompanied the president for most of his visit. Impressed by Bulfinch's buildings and personality, Monroe later appointed him as Architect of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Bulfinch spent 12 years in DC before returning to Boston, primarily working on the rebuilding of the US Capitol, which had been destroyed in the War of 1812.

The rotunda (which foreshadows Bulfinch's work on the Capitol) was originally made of wood and later covered with copper by Paul Revere's company, which had developed a process for making thin copper sheets. It was gilded in the 19th century, painted black during World War II to make it less visible to air raids, and restored in 23 karat gold in the 1990s.

The original State House is surrounded on three sides by an annex designed by Charles Brigham that was added in 1895. Its more ornate look reflects the taste of Bostonians later in the 19th century.

Near the Ashburton Entrance on Bowdoin St., a classical column topped by an eagle represents the "beacon" that gave Beacon Hill its name in colonial times. The original was a bucket of tar atop a tall mast which could be lit on fire as a signal in emergencies. It was destroyed during the Revolutionary War, so when the State House was built on Beacon Hill, Bulfinch designed a 60-foot Doric column topped by a wooden eagle to remember the beacon and the war. It may have been the first Revolutionary War monument in the US. The current column is a replica of Bulfinch's.

Bulfinch cited two buildings in London as his inspirations for the State House. Somerset House, a multi-use public building, was designed by Sir William Chambers and completed in 1776. The Pantheon, an entertainment center, was designed by James Wyatt and completed in 1772.

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