The Massachusetts State House
photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

A Product of Evolution

When America's first professional architect, Charles Bulfinch, drew his design for the Massachusetts State House in 1787, he did not know it would be built on Beacon Hill, or even in Boston.

It is difficult to imagine the State House different from how we know it today. Its grounds are nestled between office buildings and stately homes of Beacon Hill. And like a New England home, it is formed by additions and improvements made by succeeding generations.

What we see today is a complex, which the historian Walter M. Whitehill described as "a very odd fowl indeed, with a golden topknot, a red breast, white wings and a yellow tail." Each of these traits recalls a step in the State House's still continuing evolution.

Illustration of the Massachusetts State House

Classical Innovation

The inspiration for the State House was Somerset House, Sir William Chambers' creation which housed England's learned societies and its naval command. Charles Bulfinch simplified its neoclassical style, adapting its forms for the smooth face of red brick.

The resulting Federalist Style uses classical elements to create an ordered, symmetrical build ing which is grand without being ornate. The original Bulfinch building was only sixty-one feet deep by one hundred and seventy three feet wide. Its had three levels: a ground level twenty feet high, a main level with thirty foot ceilings, and a twenty foot tall attic which was sixty feet wide.

This drawing by Bulfinch shows his use of rhythmical arches forming an arcaded entrance. The fluted Corinthian columns were carved from individual pine trees from Maine. Window lintels with raised keystones, the use of balustrades and ironwork are all elements typical of federal-style design. This drawing also shows the original chimneys, which were removed after a central heating system was installed in 1867.

The original Massachusetts State House
photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

Change Begins

Changes to the Bulfinch state house began just four years after its completion. The impressive 30-foot-high dome began to leak almost immediately. Paul Revere's foundry was hired to make the dome watertight by sheathing it with a layer of copper, which was painted gray, and eventually light yellow.

Keeping with the fashion of the day, all the brick surfaces of the State House exterior were painted white in 1825. Isaiah Rogers designed four fireproof rooms which were added in 1831. In 1853 the prolific engineer and architect Gridley Bryant designed a larger addition to accommodate a State House library and other offices which looked in on a courtyard on the Bulfinch building's north side.

1855 found the State House painted yellow gold, again reflecting changing fashions. By 1867 a central heating facility allowed the removal of the many chimneys topping the building.

The Massachusetts State House

The Brigham Addition

Completed in time for the Bulfinch State House's one hundredth anniversary, the Brigham addition more than tripled the State House's usable space. It was constructed using yellow bricks to match the then yellow-painted State House.

The much larger Brigham Addition extends the capitol while remaining visually subordinate to the original Bulfinch State House. Unlike today, this view shows the State House with a clear view of the harbor, which today would be encumbered by taller buildings blocking the view. Also, the equestrian General Hooker statue is far more prominent, free of today's East Wing addition which now frames it.

This view also shows the State House's golden dome, which was first gilded in 1874.

The Massachusetts State House
photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

East and West Wings Added

Between 1914 and 1917 East and West wings were added to the State House. Made of cool gray Vermont Marble, these two wings created the general configuration seen today.

To harmonize the multi-colored complex, the entire State House was painted white. Then in 1928, all the paint applied to stone was removed - allowing the colors of the natural building materials to show the buildings sections and development.

Since then there have been brief changes. During the second World War the State House's dome was painted gray as camouflage. From time to time the dome has been regilded. In 2001 and 2002 the entire exterior of the building was covered with scaffolding and protective shrouding during the most comprehensive restorative work in the buildings two hundred years of service.