Charles Bulfinch

Charles Bulfinch, the country's first native-born professional architect and foremost architect of the newly independent states, was born in 1763 into a wealthy Boston family. He attended Boston Latin and watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from the roof of his family’s home on Bowdoin Street. After graduating from Harvard, he spent two years on a grand tour of Europe, as one would expect of the son of a prominent physician. He studied and admired the new English architecture, especially the neoclassical styles of Robert Adam and Sir William Chambers.

Returning to Boston, Bulfinch described the next several years as a “season of leisure, pursuing no business, but giving gratuitous advice in architecture.” It was during this period that he designed two state capitols, three churches, two public monuments, a theater, a hotel, and twelve private homes. Although he was never well off financially during his Boston career, his contributions to the city were enormous. Besides his numerous fine buildings and ideas for civic improvement, he was chief of police and head of the Board of Selectmen for many years. Mayor Josiah Quincy wrote of Bulfinch: “During the many years he presided over the town government, he improved its finances, executed the laws with firmness, and was distinguished for gentleness and urbanity of manners, integrity and purity of character . . . Few men deserve to be held by the Citizens of Boston in more grateful remembrance than Charles Bulfinch.”

One of his great contributions to the city, the state, and the country—for it was the most outstanding public building in America for decades after its construction—was the Massachusetts State House. Bulfinch also designed statehouses for Connecticut (1796) and Maine (1832). President Monroe appointed him architect of the U.S. Capitol in 1817, a project that consumed Bulfinch for twelve years. His 1818 drawing of the Capitol building is exquisite, a three-domed, perfectly proportioned composition. Only the central portion of the west façade survives from his original design after subsequent enlargements and alterations.

After decades of unpaid public service and unpredictable payments from private clients, these were comfortable years for Bulfinch and his wife on his annual federal salary of $2500. He died in Boston in 1844 at the age of eighty-one, fifteen years after his return from Washington.

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