Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch

Charles Bulfinch
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Few people have left as great a mark on the architectural landscape of Boston as Charles Bulfinch has. Thought by some to be the first native-born major American architect, Bulfinch helped to singlehandedly shape the face of the city and its buildings in the late 1790s and early 1800s.

Born in 1763, he attended the Boston Latin School and later went on to study at Harvard College. While on a tour in Europe, Bulfinch was struck by the design of planned urban areas in France, inspiring him to become an architect. When he returned to the States, he began his career first by designing mansions and residences in and around Beacon Hill, later moving on to the larger structures for which he is most famous for. 

He took his interest in urban planning back to Boston as well, creating innovative housing complexes and other real estate developments. One such development was called Tontine Crescent, a set of sixteen interconnected townhouses on Franklin Street, the first of its kind in the city. Soon after, he built a similar development called Colonnade Row, named for the Doric Colonnade it had on it, on Tremont Street overlooking the Common. 

Bulfinch's buildings follow the Federal style of design, built with red bricks, simple angles, and having arches as a common feature. By taking a stroll through Beacon Hill on any given day, almost all the buildings one would see would be in the Federal style. Many of the buildings he designed helped propel him into fame. He built many churches, including the Hollis Street Church, the first Catholic church in Boston. 

Although most of the buildings Bulfinch built are no longer around, a good few remain standing today and still play important roles in the life of the city. Some are still actively used for their original purposes, while some have been turned into museums and historical sites. Read on for an exploration into some of the great buildings that Charles Bulfinch created.

Massachusetts State House
Bulfinch is probably most famous for his design of the Massachusetts State House. (He also built the Connecticut State House in Hartford.) In 1795, the (then) town of Boston purchased the pastureland of John Hancock, who died two years earlier, for the site of the state house. In 1797 construction was finished, although Bulfinch had begun designs for this project as early as 1787. The distinctive golden dome that has become a trademark for the city is sheathed in copper and covered in 23-karat gold, but it was originally made of wooden shingles.

First Harrison Gray Otis House - 141 Cambridge Street, Boston

This house was completed in 1796 for Harrison Gray Otis, a lawyer, real estate investor, and prominent politician of the time. He was a US Senator from 1817 to 1822, and also held many other offices throughout his life. The house has been designated as a US National Historic Landmark and is currently owned by the Historic New England organization.

Second Otis House - 85 Mount Vernon Street, Boston

Bulfinch built a total of three houses for Harrison Gray Otis and this is the second one. It is currently listed on the National Register. Otis lived here until 1806, when he moved into the third house designed by Bulfinch, located on nearby Beacon Street. 

Third Otis House - 45 Beacon Street, Boston 

This house was completed in 1806 and is the largest of the three. Otis resided here until his death in 1848. The structure was originally freestanding, yet is now surrounded by other buildings on both sides. The house is currently home to the American Meteorological Society.

87 Mount Vernon Street

#87 is on the right.

This house was built in 1805 and for a time was home to General Charles J. Paine, a Civil War general and yachtsman. At present, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts calls this building home. 

Faneuil Hall Expansion

Boston wouldn't be Boston without Faneuil Hall. This iconic Boston landmark has been an active marketplace and meeting hall since 1742. It gains its name from Peter Faneuil, a wealthy merchant who provided funding for its construction. Faneuil Hall played a huge role in Boston's political life in the Colonial Era, serving as a meeting place and forum for all political matters. 

In 1806, Bulfinch was charged with designing and building the expansion of the hall, making it wider and adding a third floor. Today, it is still used for city debates and has become Faneuil Hall Marketplace. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

St. Stephen's Church (New North Church)

Located in the North End, St. Stephen's is the last remaining Bulfinch church in Boston, dedicated in 1804. It was originally built for a Congregational group, but in 1813, it became a Unitarian church. In 1862, it again changed hands when it was sold to Bishop Fitzpatrick and became St. Stephen's, a Roman Catholic church, reflecting the large amount of Irish immigrants settling in Boston. 

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