Dr. Charles Bulfinch, the grandfather of the famous architect, designed his family's estate in Bowdoin Square in Boston. Both he and his son had studied medicine at the finest universities, traveled extensively, and applied themselves in being useful to their community.
It was in that home on Bowdoin Square that young Charles first learned of architecture. His grandfather's library was arguably the finest collection of architectural books in colonial Boston. It was also from the top of their home that Young Bulfinch is said to have watched the Battle of Bunker Hill in nearby Charlestown.
He attended the already prestigious Boston Latin School, and graduated from Harvard in 1781, earning a masters degree there in 1784. He had studied a classical curriculum, only slightly advancing his interest in architecture.
Bulfinch's real education in architecture came through travel. In 1785 he undertook an eighteen-month tour in Europe, spending time in England and France in the company of Thomas Jefferson. In a letter of introduction, Governor James Bowdoin had described Bulfinch as 'of good character & temperate', words which his adult life would in fact confirm.
Service to the Commonwealth
After arriving back to Boston, Bulfinch found himself with time to incorporate what he had learned and seen into the designs of buildings. As an aristocratic amateur he designed more than a dozen homes, several churches, and the state capitol in Hartford. He married, started a family, and became active in civic life.
In 1789 Bulfinch proposed establishing the first monument to the American Revolution. In this case he not only designed the monument, but solicited members of society for their financial support to make it possible. The Beacon Hill Memorial had four tablets recalling key moments in the revolution on its base, which supported a sixty-foot column topped with an eagle. The addition made visiting the top of Beacon Hill an attraction for residents and tourists.
His knowledge of design and obvious interest in public service made Bulfinch an excellent choice to serve as the unpaid chairman of Boston's board of selectman. He served in that role for all but four of the twenty-six years between 1791 and 1817.
In 1795 Bulfinch Bulfinch's proposal was accepted for designing the Massachusetts State House. He received $600.91 in payment, making this his first paying work as an architect.
After the State House
Never has one man's fall from fortune more ennobled a single municipality. With each year Bulfinch's family reduced their expenses and moved to progressively smaller homes. By 1799 he was bankrupt, and the leaders of Boston took on the challenge of finding a way to pay Bulfinch for his efforts.
Though selectmen were not paid, they arranged for him to serve as Chairman of Selectmen and Supervisor of Police. With a modest income assured, Bulfinch devoted himself to managing Boston's growth, as well as designing much of it. He designed the expansion of Faneuil Hall, the New North Church (today St. Stephens), Massachusetts General Hospital, County Court Houses in Middlesex and Suffolk County, jails, university buildings at Harvard, and innumerable homes on Beacon Hill for the city's elite. Though prolific, Bulfinch received only a subsistence living for his efforts, and continued to struggle financially.
In the summer of 1817, Bulfinch's service as selectman, designer and public official came to a climax during the visit of President James Monroe. Over a week the two men were almost constantly in each other's company. As he toured the town's fine architecture he was amazed to find his host, not only administered the town's affairs, but had personally designed many of the structures he admired.
President Monroe soon after his visit appointed Bulfinch the architect of the US Capitol. The assignment carried a salary of $2,500, an increase of more than four times what he was paid in Boston. The Bulfinch's relocated and lived Washington over the next twelve years, enjoying what Bulfinch described as the happiest years of his life.
In 1830, Charles Bulfinch returned to the City of Boston, and lived with his family in the calm of their old mansion in Bowdoin Square. From there Bulfinch and his children could see buildings and squares of his design, and the work of his architectural followers. They could enjoy a city which recognized his special contribution, and be satisfied for having brought something back to Boston from the world beyond it.