Object of the Month

Charles Bulfinch begins his Life’s Work

View of the triumphal Arch and Colonnade erected in Boston in honor of the President of the United States, Oct. 24, 1789 Engraving

View of the triumphal Arch and Colonnade erected in Boston in honor of the President of the United States, Oct. 24, 1789

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This illustration from the January 1790 issue of The Massachusetts Magazine, or Monthly Museum depicts Charles Bulfinch's design for a triumphal arch erected in honor of George Washington.

The Arch

The triumphal arch erected in Boston in honor of the visit of President George Washington on 24 October 1789 was architect Charles Bulfinch's first public architectural commission. While the "Washington Arch" was temporary and Bulfinch already had designed an important Boston building, the Hollis Street Church, built between 1787 and 1789, the arch brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. On the day of Washington's arrival in Boston, he was met by a procession led by musicians and made up of more than sixty divisions, organized in alphabetical order by craft or trade to prevent disputes over priority (see an online presentation of a broadside about the procession). They marched to the State House (now Boston's "Old State House"), the site of Bulfinch's arch as well as an accompanying colonnade designed by Thomas Dawes. "The man of the people" passed through a window in the west end of the State House to a gallery on top of the colonnade, where he was greeted by three huzzas from the citizenry and an ode written for the occasion and sung by a "select" choir seated beneath the canopy over the central archway:

Great Washington, the Hero's come,
Each heart exulting hears the sound;
See! Thousands their de-liv'-er throng [more people attended the ceremony than lived in Boston],
And shout him wel-come all a-round.

The arch and colonnade are described in considerable detail in contemporary newspapers and in the January 1790 issue of The Massachusetts Magazine, or Monthly Museum. The "Ode to Columbia's Favorite Son" had been written far enough in advance to appear in the October 1789 issue of the magazine, coinciding with the president's visit to Boston.

The triumphal arch was eighteen feet high with a central opening fourteen feet wide (flanked by seven-foot-wide arches) with an Ionic pilaster and "proper imposts" between them. The "freeze" exhibited thirteen stars on a blue ground and a "handsome white cornice" was carried to the height of the platform. The canopy soared twenty feet above the arch with an eagle perched on the top. The oval tablet visible above the central arch in the engraving read: "To the Man who unites all Hearts." On the side facing away from the engraved view another tablet was inscribed, "To Columbia's favorite son," and at the end facing the State House was a third, "March 17, 1776," the date of the evacuation of Boston by the British after the successful siege conducted by Washington.

Charles Bulfinch, Gentleman

In the first Boston town directory, published in 1789, twenty-six-year-old Charles Bulfinch is listed as a "gentleman" living on Marlborough Street, then one of the town's main thoroughfares and soon to be renamed part of "Washington Street." Bulfinch had been born in Boston in 1763, the son of Thomas Bulfinch, a physician, and Susan Apthorp Bulfinch. The younger Bulfinch grew up in Revolutionary Boston where he witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from the roof of his family's mansion house. He attended Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard University in the class of 1781. There was no formal architectural training in America at that time and Bulfinch worked in Joseph Barrell's counting house, later recollecting that he did not have very much work due to an economic slump, giving him leisure "to cultivate a taste for Architecture." An inheritance gave him the means to travel to Europe in 1785, where, with letters of introduction from Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, he spent two years traveling widely and studying both ancient and modern buildings.

Returning to Boston early in 1787, Bulfinch devoted his time to giving "gratuitous advice in Architecture" and entering into a long and happy marriage to a cousin, Hannah Apthorp. He received his first architectural commission only a few months after his return from Europe, the design of a new meeting house for the Hollis Street Church to replace a building destroyed by fire in April 1787. Over the next thirty years, until Bulfinch became the Architect of the Capitol of the United States (the result of another presidential visit to Boston—that of James Monroe in 1817), he transformed Boston and other towns throughout New England through his design and construction of public buildings and private dwellings.

Bulfinch planned new state houses for Massachusetts and Connecticut, and after "secession," a new statehouse for Maine. He designed Boston's first public theater, as well as a new almshouse, county court house, and state prison. He planned utilitarian wharves and commercial buildings. He built many Unitarian meeting houses, but also Holy Cross Church, the first building designed for Catholic worship in Boston. He planned town houses (three for Harrison Gray Otis alone), blocks of row houses, and elegant country estates—a total of more than sixty commissions designed and constructed before he moved to Washington, almost all in the face of a series of financial reverses that crippled his business plans. Bulfinch remained in Washington until 1830, completing the United States Capitol as well as designing other public buildings, before returning to his family home in Boston where he died in 1844.

Charles Bulfinch and the Massachusetts Historical Society

A member of the Massachusetts Historical Society for forty-three years, Charles Bulfinch also was one of the Society's most important early benefactors. In 1793 he had attempted to introduce city planning to Boston by building the Tontine Crescent—sixteen connected three-story houses that would form an association. As part of the real estate development, Bulfinch and his partners offered the Massachusetts Historical Society a room above the center arch of the Crescent "forever" for a token fee of five shillings. The Historical Society quickly accepted the offer and occupied the room from 1794 to 1833. Perhaps realizing that the Tontine Crescent project had led to Bulfinch's financial ruin, the MHS waived his fees when he was elected a member in 1801.

Engraved by Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill, who engraved the view of the triumphal arch for the Massachusetts Magazine, was a prolific Boston artist who was the principal illustrator for the magazine during its six years of publication between 1789 and 1794. Many of Hill's engravings were from his own drawings. He also illustrated books and engraved the first official map of Massachusetts, printed in 1802 under the supervision of the Historical Society, before moving to New York in 1803.

"The Father of His Country Returns to Boston"—An Exhibition

In the fall of 1789 during his first year in office, President George Washington embarked on a month-long tour of New England. There was enormous excitement everywhere he went. When the president arrived in Newburyport, young John Quincy Adams, who was studying law there, observed:

At the present moment they indulge themselves in sentiments of joy, arising/resulting . . . from the gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of his Country.

To mark the anniversary of this visit, the Massachusetts Historical Society has on display documents and artifacts that celebrate Washington's tour, including Samuel Hill's engraving of Charles Bulfinch's triumphal arch and a portrait of the president painted by Christian Gullager during the New England tour. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM and will be on display until 24 January 2015

Sources for Further Reading

Bulfinch Family Papers, 1720-1793. The Bulfinch family papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society include a small number of Charles Bulfinch letters.

"Description of the Triumphal Arch and Colonnade, erected at Boston, in honour of the President of the United States, October 24, 1789." The Massachusetts Magazine, or Monthly Museum. January 1790. Vol. 2 (1790). Boston: Isaiah Thomas and F. T. Andrews, p. [1].

"Historic Processions in Boston, 1780-1824." The Bostonian Society Publications. Vol. 5 (1908). Boston: Printed for the Society 1908, 65-119.

Kirker, Harold. The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Kirker, Harold and James Kirker. Bulfinch's Boston: 1787-1817. New York: OUP, 1964.

Place, Charles A. Charles Bulfinch: Architect and Citizen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925.

Procession. Boston, October 19, 1789. As this town is shortly to be honoured with a visit from the President . . . [Boston: s.n., 1789].


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