Monday, February 5, 2018

Red, White , and Yellow: The Many Faces of the Bulfinch State House

The State House of Massachusetts is easily one of the most iconic buildings in Boston. The classic Federal exterior, the pillars, and the stunning golden dome inspired Oliver Wendell Holmes to crown it “the hub of the solar system,” and Boston is still known as the “the Hub” today. But the original State House, completed in 1798 and designed by Charles Bulfinch, did not always exemplify the brick-based style that is so characteristic of Boston itself. For the majority of the 19th century, it wasn’t even red.

Etching of the State House, painted white, during the Bunker Hill celebration,
Ballou’s Pictorial c. 1850s.

In 1825, during Charles Bulfinch’s lifetime, the State House of Massachusetts was painted bright white by Gore & Baker, who charged only $2,631.19 for the job. Many of Boston’s famous buildings were being similarly painted, possibly to protect the brick and make it water tight (Preservation by Prevention). Throughout the 1800’s, the Bulfinch fa├žade was painted several more times, though the color was often left out of the receipts of work. Ellen Mudge Burrill, who wrote several guide books regarding the State House, estimates that thirty years after it was first painted white, the State House was changed to yellow. This is explains by the extension behind the State House, built in 1895 and designed by Charles E. Brigham, was built with yellow brick rather than with red.

Postcard of the State House showing the Brigham extension, ca. 1901-1919

Throughout these many faces of the State House, some people thought that the Bulfinch building should be replaced all together to make way for a bigger, better building. By the 1890s, despite consistent maintenance to the building and an expansion in the 1850s, the overall condition of the State House had caused some legislators to suggest demolition. This caused a public outcry, inspiring petitions, articles, pamphlets entitled “Save the State House,” and a “ladies committee” that demanded preservation of the historic landmark (State House Historic Structures Report). Thankfully the Legislature decided to preserve, not destroy, the building in 1896. Instead, the State House was expanded again with white Vermont marble and granite wings designed by designed by William Chapman, R. Clipson Sturgis, and Robert D. Andrews and built between 1914 ad 1917.

Postcard featuring the State House, painted white, with the new
 East and West Wings, ca. 1913-1918.

However, by the 1920s, a desire to restore the old buildings of Boston hit the city. The Park Street Church, the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, and many other important early buildings were being stripped of their coats of paint and restored to their traditional brick facades. This was in part because of a Romantic Movement inspired by the (often misinformed) restorations of medieval structures in Europe, as well as the rise of an Arts and Crafts Movement that wanted to expose the rough brick and the “’honest’ crafts of the past,” though it is possible they were misinformed as well (Historic Masonry Finishes). Because the State House was painted during the architect’s lifetime, it is possible that it, as well as other Georgian and Federal brick buildings, were always meant to be painted.

Fanueil Hall and the Old State House before they were restored to their original
brick facades. From the Postcard collection of the State Library of Massachusetts'
Special Collections department.

However, around 1910 some wondered whether the State House should also be restored. On July 12, 1927, Ellen Mudge Burrill submitted a report to Fred Kimball, the Superintendent of Buildings, calling for the restoration of the State House, citing the restoration of the other historic buildings in Boston and the State House’s own architectural importance. Kimball requested permission to strip the paint from Governor Alvan T. Fuller on July 18, 1927 and the next year, workmen began sandblasting the Bulfinch building’s paint away.

The sandblasting was an immense project. The State House had layers and layers of oil paint, much of which had to be burned after it was removed. One article described the work as such: “There are four men doing it, two in each ‘gang.’ They work on a scaffolding lowered down the side of the building by means of a hoisting tackle… While one man applies the acetylene torch, the other, with a long-handled scraper removed the burned paint. The process leaves a surface that looks as if it has gone through a siege of fires” (Boston Post, 1928).

Cover of the January 1953 publication of Telephone Topics showing the restored front of the State House

After the restoration was completed, most appeared to have very favorable opinions on the State House’s new look. One reporter wrote that passersby “never saw the old front with its gilden dome look so attractive” and that the exposure of the brick “is widely considered an unexpected architectural triumph” (Corbett, 1928). But not all liked how the red brick and the granite wings looked together: another writer declared that the newly stripped State House “reminds him of a lean corned beef sandwich” (“The Restored State House,” 1928). Another writer reflected on an opinion that suggested the stripped brick was “indecent” and the only proper course of action would be to “cover it up and forget it… put [it] in the Art Museum along with the other nudes” (M.A.A., 1928). Thankfully today both citizens and tourists of Boston share the view that our beautiful State House is indeed an architectural triumph, and few today have compared it to a sandwich.

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Works Cited:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference staff