|The Old South Meeting House, built 1729.|
Both locals and visitors to Boston are familiar with the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, both built in the first half of the 1700s and both sites for iconic moments in American Revolutionary history. But who built these buildings? If you do a basic Google search for their architect, many webpages will inform you that the talented individual is none other than Robert Twelves. Wikipedia mentions Robert Twelves in their entries for both buildings; his name is also listed on websites and resources like iBoston.org, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, MIT’s DOME digital collections, and the Boston Public Library Fine Arts Department’s artist index. But if you try to dig deeper, the trail ends. Who is this so-called architect and why do we have no record of him?
According to Marian C. Donnelly, the first reference to Robert Twelves occurred in Hamilton A. Hill’s History of the Old South Church (1890). At the end of a citation regarding cornerstones, Hill casually throws in, “Robert Twelves is said to have been the builder” without any explanation as to where this information came from. Yet further architecture historians took this kernel for truth, and the attribution appeared in Charles A. Place’s Old Time New England (1923), Hugh Morrison’s Early American Architecture (1952), and Harold W. Rose’s Colonial Houses of Worship in America (1963) (Donnelly). Even some contemporary books like Howard S. Andros’ Buildings and Landmarks of Old Boston (2001) mention Twelves as the designer of Old South Meeting House.
|Old State House, built circa 1712.|
How Twelves was also credited with the design of the Old State House is less clear. It is possible that, because the Old State House in its current form was built less than two decades before the Old South Meeting House, contemporary sources have gotten the two buildings confused or assigned Twelves when no architect was known.
Donnelly was able to trace a Robert Twelves using colonial town records. In Braintree, a Robert Tweld “who erected the South Church at Boston” died March 9 in either 1696 or 1697. How could a man have built the Old State House when the original Town House of 1657 didn’t burn down until 1711, almost 15 years after his death? Similarly, how could he have designed a building for the Old South congregation when they voted to replace their wooden building in 1728? It is possible, at the most, that Twelves was involved in building the original Old Cedar Meeting House around 1670.
We unfortunately don’t know where Hamilton A. Hill found the name of Robert Twelves, whether he misread this limited Braintree obituary or viewed other records that mentioned Twelves. The proliferation of this seemingly insignificant fact can serve as an example of how historiography can so easily alter contemporary understandings of what happened in the past. Whether you are a student, established historian, or amateur researcher, always remember to check those citations!
Donnelly, Marian C. “Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 29, no. 2, 1970, pp. 204–204., www.jstor.org/stable/98866