Monday, January 21, 2019

The “Brigham Addition” and Saving the Bulfinch State House

View of the State House’s Bulfinch building and the
rear Bryant addition c.1880, prior to the construction
of the Brigham addition.
In 1889 the Massachusetts legislature authorized the construction of a larger annex to add more space to the original 1798 State House building designed by architect Charles Bulfinch.  This annex addressed the “practical needs of the growing Commonwealth” and provided much needed space for the State Library and other government offices.  The original plan was that the “extension was to be so constructed as to harmonize with the State House and it was to be built to save the State House,” as most initially felt that it should be preserved as a “landmark for the people.”  By 1892, however, this plan started shifting to one that was considering the possibility of tearing the original building down.

The State House Construction Commissioners were appointed in 1889 to oversee the project.  In their 1892 report to the governor, they expressed concern with the repairs needed to the original building and felt that it made more financial sense to tear it down and construct a new one with the same materials used for the annex, especially since, they argued, the original structure would be so completely changed anyway as a result of adding the annex to the back of the building.  No decision had been reached, and in their December 1893 report to the governor, as the annex, designed by architect Charles Brigham, reached completion, the Commissioners again stated:
The Commissioners feel it their duty to again suggest that the whole State House be made new.  As we said in our report of 1892: “When the extension already authorized is completed, practically nothing of the old part will be left except the Doric Hall with its wings and the halls, rooms and dome above it.  It is some hundred years old.  Its outer walls and wooden finish will not be in keeping with what, while called an extension, will really be five-sixths of the whole building.  The dome is of wood, subject to the impairment of age, and should be of iron.  It is hardly possible that many years will pass before, in any event, this old and most conspicuous part, facing Beacon Street and the Common, will be made new and of equal quality with the rest.  If so, it is to be considered whether this renovation cannot be made better and cheaper now, in conjunction with the work of the extension, than hereafter as a new enterprise.  It is recognized, of course, that no change would ever be permitted in the now historic and always admirable contour and architectural effect of the State House; but we believe the time has come when the front should be rebuilt, preserving its present proportions, and rebuilt now, in connection with the extension.”
View of the State House’s Bulfinch building and Brigham
extension as it appeared in 1903.
Many people were starting to believe that the state house was truly beyond repair—that it had weak foundations, rotted woodwork, and was generally unsafe—while others still felt that preservation was necessary.  There was much public outcry in the form of remonstrances and petitions from all over the state against the recommendations of the Commissioners.  Clement Fay, in an 1894 remonstrance, stated “To reproduce in cold white marble and bright yellow bricks the quaint details of one hundred years ago, we regard as impossible.”  Remonstrant Arthur Rotch worried that Beacon Hill would become “uncrowned” if the “historic building which every sister State envies us is wantonly swept away.”  The minority of the legislative Committee on State House released their own statements that supported preservation over reconstruction.  The year 1895 saw bills filed for and against tearing down the State House, but by the December 1895 report of the Commissioners it became clear that the decision was made to preserve the Bulfinch building and attach the annex to it as originally planned.  In June of 1896, the legislature passed an act that sealed the deal—the Bulfinch portion of the State House would be preserved for future generations.

Relevant documents:

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Librarian