Massachusetts State House – ‘Federal’ Architecture (1795-1798)

When I was first introduced to this building, I sat in a Bryn Mawr Architectural History class attempting to decide if my passion for architecture was worth pursuing. Among the many we learned about, this one stuck.

I’ve asked myself why, as I’ve started to write this post, but no clear thing jumps to mind. It could be the slightly odd shape of the dome or its association with the fundamental building blocks of architecture that have come to define so much of my life. But either way, I was keen to loo inside and my brother’s visit proved the perfect excuse. (If you are in Boston, make a reservation and tour this building for free during the week. Then round out the trip with a nice breakfast sandwich from Mike and Patty’s, seriously you won’t regret it!).

Nowadays, surrounded by skyscrapers and buildings full of pastries, the State house seems less spectacular than it once was. But mostly because it’s hard to imagine the Boston of 1795. The one made of wooden, medieval style houses, where the state house stood alone as a beacon of modernity on top of a hill. When built, it was the most significant public building in the United States (besides maybe Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol in 1789). In many ways, it set a precedent for our current expectation of all government buildings. That neoclassical, federalist look exudes order, stability, and strength.  When the nation was only 20 years old, it alluded to a permanence not yet created. As a nation that is now 200 something years old, it alludes to timelessness. And just because it deserves mention in itself, it was created by the first American born architect on his first paid commission when he was only twenty something himself.

One of the more original parts of the building, although I’m sure there have been countless changes since Bulfinch’s time.

After returning from his grand tour of Europe, Charles Bulfinch  set about designing the first state house in America. I get a little chill here thinking of my first paid commission being a state house, only a few years after school. It sounds crazy and complicated and disastrous, especially when you consider he was by himself! Drawing on his trip to Europe and admiration for the neoclassical of Britain, he developed the ‘federal style’ along with his contemporaries. And despite the many factors working against him, the State house was a success. The hemispherical dome and grand porch he employed were adopted on countless buildings throughout the 19th century.

His career took off, but due to some bad investments in a public housing project, Bulfinch was forced to become a Boston selectman for financial reasons (although he did not make much). Under this period, Boston was transformed. Not only did he play a role in developing Beacon Hill, but he also had a part in designing the Boston Commons, the Faneuil Hall enlargement, India Wharf, row houses, streets,  and countless other structures across town. Unfortunately, Bulfinch continued to struggle with debt and even went to jail for the month of July in 1811 because of it (to a prison he designed). But his story is not an unhappy one. Eventually President James Monroe would appoint him to finish the capitol in Washington DC (with a healthy salary too). His completion of a project fraught with controversy received commendation.

From above. Hopefully you can pick out the gold dome in the left hand top corner as this building

But back to the Massachusetts State House. In 1785, Boston was a city of hills. The state house’s current location was once John Hancock’s rural cow fields. John Singleton Copley purchased the land, and several wealthy Bostonians, including Bulfinch, made their own association to develop the area. As work on the statehouse began, the hills were lowered to create flat land for better construction. The removed land was dumped into the river and began the process of filling in the Back Bay.

But before construction could begin, a design was necessary. Since the Massachusetts State house would be the first of its kind in the colonies, it deserved grandeur. Bulfinch, and the ridiculous amount of historical figures that you recognize in this story, decided the nation needed it’s own national identity. But more than that, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ government needed a new home that expressed their ideals. The state house would be placed on top of one of the hills, harkening back to those original words all Massachusetts’ school children learn, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill,” (John Winthrop).  The building would celebrate Massachusetts’ early 1780 status as a commonwealth when it adopted its own constitution, a ground-breaking declaration of rights that would serve as a model for the constitution of the United States. In fact, it is the oldest written constitution still in effect in the world today.

The architecture had a lot to live up to.

To do just that, Bulfinch adopts a style with longevity, monumentality, and association. At this point, it should be no surprise to you that when architects want people to think of democracy and fairness and balance, they use architecture associated with the ancient democracies of Greece and Republican Rome (especially when discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum made Ancient Greece and Rome fashionable).  Drawing on those classical details, he also references the Somerset House in England (check it out here), but with a slenderness and simplicity not present there.

Those huge columns were once huge tree trunks from Maine. Sadly, columns are not made like that anymore.

In the end, this building represents the Federal Style. It draws from Neo-Greek revival and adopts a Roman vocabulary. Concerned with the ideas of balance and symmetry, it has both the aspect of the simple and pure, with some limited decorative ornament too. Most federal style structures are basic boxes, with decoration confined to the entry elements. Bulfinch expands a little bit here with his side wings, but in principle stays the same. This being the first state house ever, there is a little more leeway for decoration. A cornice, balustrade, pediment and hemispherical  dome top the basic block with the elaborate front porch. Brick arches and Corinthians columns relate back to renaissance order and rhythm. Palladian windows can be found on the side wings (those semicircles were all the rage). A rather broad set of steps not only suggests a certain openness to the people, but recalls temple structures found all over Greece and Rome.  The classical columns and pilasters provide stateliness, while the narrow stringcourses show delicacy.


the house of representatives

Inside the building, the Massachusetts legislature had a (now 40 seat) senate and (now 160) house of representatives, as well as the office for the executive officer, or governor. It comes as no surprise, that the building (and its expansions) now covers two city blocks., despite the fact that it started off quite small. Make sure to look at the original plan here to show how limited the first building really was.  As the government has grown, so has the state house.


From one of the many additions.

But throughout it all, there has been the dome. Leaking badly, the original wood dome was covered in copper in 1802 by Paul Revere’s company. (Fun Fact: Paul Revere is also famous for being the first American to roll copper successfully into sheets.) Afterwards, many other iterations occurred. For a period during the Civil War, it was gray. It was then painted a light yellow before being gilded in gold lead in 1874. WWI led to it be painting gray again to aid during blackouts. But, in 1997, once again the dome was re-gilded in 23k gold for about 300,000 dollars. At the pinnacle of the dome a gilded wooden pine cone pays homage to the lumber industry of Boston and the state of Maine, which back in 1798 was a district of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Senate and see that fish up there on the chandelier?

The pinecone is not the only symbol in the state house, it’s impossible to not mention the Sacred Cod and holy Mackerel. In case you aren’t familiar, Boston used to be a thriving seaport. Some said the fish were so thick, you could almost walk on water over them. Cod and Mackerel were prime exports. In the 1700s (before this statehouse was even an idea), a carved wooden fish was donated to the government to remind them of fishing’s power, but it disappeared during British occupation. In 1784, a concerned citizen in 1784 donated a new carved cod. It would hang for almost 150 years before Harvard’s national lampoon would ‘cod-nap’ it in 1933. The House of Representatives refused to do anything until it was returned. They weren’t able to resume for several days until Harvard police tracked it down. And just because the senate wanted to get in on the fish action too, they have a holy mackerel.

The Cod.

To be honest, there are so many spaces inside this building that they could get a whole post to themselves. The interiors do not hold much of the original, but have been expanded and added to with countless other treasures.

The later added, Hall of Flags houses 400 flags dating back as far as 1865. Regiments returning from the Civil War brought back flags.

This post has been a little haphazard, but the most important take away here is the typology Bulfinch helped create. The power a young man had to change and shape a city with his designs and architecture.  Still today, government buildings are constructed in this style. Most believe it seems fitting. That can be traced back to this building, once constructed on a grazing pasture on the fringes of a town that had water so full of fish you might walk on it. Every time I glance at that gold dome, I think of a younger me studying architecture. But now, after knowing about Bulfinch, I hope the idea that I could create something like this, worth keeping, worth remembering, worth inspiring, is there too.

Later Addition State Hall also displays flags. This room is used for state functions. Once a courtyard, it has since been  enclosed it.

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