Thursday, May 24, 2012

Boston's Two State Houses

Sualeh Fatehi

The City of Boston has the distinction of having not one, but two State Houses. Both of these buildings are noble and beautiful, and designed to attract the attention of even a first time visitor to Boston. The Old State House is elaborately decorated in English Gregorian, while the current State House, with its prominent dome lead Oliver Wendell Holmes to declare that it was the hub of the solar system.

Old State House
The Old State House is one of the oldest surviving public buildings in Boston. Though central in the old city, it is still pivotal, occupying an island in a traffic junction, in the midst of later Federal period, and even modern buildings. The Old State House was built in 1713 to house the government offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the site of Boston's first Town House of 1657. It was built by William Payne, builder. The architect, however, is unknown.
The present State House is located at the top of Beacon Hill. Its golden dome is visible from afar, and like the Old State House, it is in a prominent position, and built on what was once the John Hancock's cow pastures. The original architect was America's first professional architect, Charles Bulfinch, this being his first professional commission in Boston, in 1787. (The national capitol in Washington DC and the state capitols of Connecticut and Maine are also Bulfinch's designs.) The State House building has been expanded since it was built in 1798.

Old State House
The new brick building of the Old State House, that replaced the wooden structure that burnt down in 1711, is in the typical Georgian style of the day, though more ornate than most. The windows are in expensive glass panes of twelve over twelve. Typically Georgian are the string courses found at intervals for horizontal relief in the building. The brickwork is English bond. The British emblems of the Lion and the Unicorn adorn the East face of the building. The East side has a stepped pediment, showing the Dutch influence on British architecture, along with the segmental arch. The Governor's Council Chamber was located upstairs on the east corner of the building, looking on Long Wharf (now State Street) and the harbor. The second floor was where the Massachusetts Assembly met.
Charles Bulfinch's design for the State House was inspired by Somerset House, Sir William Chambers' design for the naval command in England. Bulfinch designed the State House in a simplified neoclassical style, by smoothening its form for red brick. The resulting Federal style building is an ordered, geometrical, symmetrical building which is imposing without being too ornate. Typical of neoclassical design are the elaborate columns starting on the second floor, a pediment, and a vast shingled dome. Single Maine pine tree trunks, carved on site, were turned into fluted Corinthian columns. The dome was intended to make the structure stand out among its squat, square neighbors. The cupola is surmounted by a pine cone indicating the importance of lumber to the New England economy. Elements of the Federal style are apparent in the recessed arches of the main floor, with their subdued pilasters that complement the columns in the center. The lintels have a raised keystone, and a balustrade goes all around the building, curtaining the many chimneys of the original design. Also Federal is the diminishing fenestration that gives the building an appearance of greater height. The lowest floor is the most plain, with flat arches that support the upper storey. A white string course runs broken through the arches. The main entrance hall, the Doric Hall is a large room dominated by ten Doric columns.

The Old State House building has undergone many architectural and structural changes, including the addition of a subway station in the basement that John Hancock once rented. The earthquake of 1755 dislodged many bricks, and S-ties mark the places where the walls had to be secured.

State House
The State House has had its share of problems, and its expansions too. The impressive thirty-foot-high dome began to leak just four years after being built. Rain and snow caused the wooden shingles to rot in places. Paul Revere's foundry was hired to make the dome watertight by sheathing it with copper. Over time, the State House has needed more space for government offices. A large extension, built of yellow brick, was added to the back of the Bulfinch State House between 1889 and 1895. Yellow was the color in vogue at the time, and the extension was in yellow brick to match the yellow-painted bricks of the original building. It was designed by Charles Brigham, who made extensive use of marble, wrought iron, and carved wood paneling in the elegant interior. The balustrades on the upper floor carried the outline of the Bulfinch building, and harmonized the whole. The next addition of the two white Vermont marble wings to the east and west of the State House was completed in 1917. They were designed by William Chapman, Robert Andrew, and Clipson Sturgis. Though the exterior of this building is bleak, it is again the balustrades that unify it to the whole.

State House
Just as the Old State House is an anachronism amongst it's taller neighbors, so is State House an odd bird as historian Walter M. Whitehill described it - "a very odd fowl indeed, with a golden topknot, a red breast, white wings and a yellow tail."


Ross, Marjorie Drake. "The book of Boston: The Colonial period, 1630-1775."
Hastings House (January 1, 1960).
Ross, Marjorie Drake. "The book of Boston: The Federal period, 1775 to 1837."
Hastings House (January 1, 1961).
The Bostonian Society. "Old State House History." 2005
Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "A Tour of the Massachusetts State House." 2006
Wikipedia. "Massachusetts State House." April 25, 2006.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts. "Interactive State House." 2006