Massachusetts State House

Massachusetts State House

Charles Bulfinch, 1795–1797; restored 1896–1898

Rear annex: Charles E. Brigham, 1889–1895

Wings: Chapman, Sturgis and Andrews, 1914–1917

Renovation: Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, 1993

National Historic Landmark

One of Charles Bulfinch's 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 prepared his first plan for it on his return from Europe in 1787. His design was in the style of Sir William Chambers’s 1778 Somerset House in London. Although Worcester, Plymouth, and the South End had been considered as a site, John Hancock’s steep, rough pasture near the summit of Beacon Hill was purchased for the new State House. The design of the south (front) façade features a central projecting portico with colonnade of Corinthian columns (originally of solid Maine pine, but replaced with cast iron in 1960) supported on an arcade of brick arches. The gilded dome rests on a higher central pediment with brick pilasters beneath. Atop the dome is a lantern topped with a gilded pinecone, symbol of the abundant forests of Massachusetts. The north façade was similar to this, except pilasters were used instead of a portico colonnade.

The dome was originally whitewashed wood shingles. In 1802 the shingles were replaced with copper painted gray, installed by Paul Revere and Sons. In 1861 the dome was gilded and has remained so ever since, except during World War II when it was blackened again. Brick for the State House and most Boston buildings of the period came from Charlestown. In 1825 the red brick walls were painted white and thirty years later yellow, then white again in 1918 to match the new marble wings. (In Bulfinch’s time it was common to paint the brick of prestigious buildings if granite or marble could not be used.) Finally in 1928 the paint was removed, exposing the red brick.

Inside, one can still see most of Bulfinch’s work in the first-floor Doric Hall under the dome, and in the Senate Chamber (originally the House of Representatives) and Reception Room (originally the Senate) on the second floor. The building has suffered numerous alterations, including a long rear extension built in 1889–1895. Six times the size of the original building, of yellow brick with gray trim, the extension must have looked absurd until the marble wings, added 1914–1917, obscured the view.

For more background, see the Bulfinch guide in the Architects section.