King's Chapel

King's Chapel

Peter Harrison, 1749–1754

National Historic Landmark

King’s Chapel, founded in 1686 to serve British officers, first occupied a small wooden structure on this site. The first Anglican church in Puritan Boston, it was quite unpopular with the colonists. In 1749 the present building, designed by Peter Harrison, an architect from Newport, Rhode Island, was begun. Construction was financed largely by Charles Bulfinch’s grandfather, who wanted to strengthen the Church of England in Boston. The seventeenth-century pulpit is the one remnant of the earlier church.

A fine example of American Georgian architecture, King’s Chapel was conceived in the style of James Gibbs’s churches such as St. Martin’s in the Fields in London. Due to a lack of funds, the elaborate steeple was never built. To avoid disrupting services, the new building was built around the old one (which was then dismantled and tossed out the windows!). Built of dark Quincy granite, the church has 4-foot-thick walls, surmounted by a hipped roof. The rectangular mass has two stories of arched windows on the north and south and a Palladian window on the east. Harrison’s wood colonnade of Ionic columns was added around the square tower in 1785–1787.

Inside, pairs of large Corinthian columns, each carved from a single tree, project in front of the galleries. The main floor is divided into family pews that were owned or rented and were originally decorated according to the tastes of their owners. One canopied pew was reserved for the royal governors and later for important Americans such as George Washington. Slaves sat in the rear gallery on the cemetery side of the church, and condemned prisoners had a special pew to the right of the main entrance, where they came to hear a sermon before being hanged on the Common.

The fine tracker-action organ was built by Charles Fisk in 1963 and looks much like the church’s 1756 English organ, said to have been played by Handel. The largest bell was cast in England and hung in 1772. When it cracked, it was duplicated by Paul Revere, and it is still rung before every service.

The vista linking King's Chapel, City Hall, and the Old North Church was created intentionally in the 1960 development plan for Government Center. This view has been preserved in the design of the new Government Center T Station - if you look carefully through the glass pavilion you can still glimpse the white steeple of the Old North Church in the North End far beyond City Hall.