Boston – A House Set On A Hill

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who remarked that the Boston State House is the hub of the solar system, and that you could not pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar. And that is really the standpoint of Bostonians, Nothing else can possibly be so important as is Boston; and, to the Bostonian, his city seems to be represented by the State House. There is excellent ancient authority for the statement that a house set upon a hill cannot be hid, but even without this ancient authority there would be no disputing the fact that the State House, set as it is upon Beacon Hill, is not hid, for its gold dome, which used to offer a glory of literal gold leaf but is now not quite so striking in its more recent covering of a kind of gold paint, is visible not only to all Boston but to many and many a town and village beyond the limits of the city.

And somehow, when I look at this great dome, on its height, in Boston of New England, visible over miles and miles of the surrounding country and far out over the water, I think of another Boston, a Boston in Old England, with its splendid tower rising far into the air and visible for many, many miles across land and sea alike. And the name of this American Boston came straight from that English Boston, and hundreds of the English Boston people were the first of the settlers of this American Boston, driving out, as they did, by their presence, friendly though it was, the hermit Blaxton whom they found established here before them, with his thatched-roofed cottage and his little rose garden and his spring on what was long afterwards to become Louisburg Square. What an interesting life story Blaxton’s must have been! How it tantalizes the imagination ! And yet, as to so much of the romantic in New England, the New England mind is rather cold toward him, as is strikingly illustrated by no less a man than Henry Cabot Lodge who, after telling of the mystery of Blaxton and of the little that was ever known of him, except—and what an except !—that he was a Cambridge man who exiled himself, with his library, to the absolutely unbroken wilderness and marvelously made a charming home here, with his flowers and books, in the early 1620′s, goes on to add, Boston-like, that although all this seems dimly mysterious and excites curiosity, the story would “no doubt prove commonplace enough” if we could know more about it !

I have often thought, when looking at the dome on Beacon Hill, that the early settlers, looking at the early beacon that, on the then much higher hill, long preceded the State House here, must have been strongly reminded of their church-tower beacon of St. BotoIph’s at home, and that they would have been intensely pleased could they have known that this great dome was to stand here, and that, every night, it was to be a beacon superbly glowing with great rings of light that shine far out over the countryside.

And remembering that English Boston, with its splendid, tall, truncated tower, that was in times of danger a beacon tower, and its veritable tide-water Back Bay (even though it may not have been given that name), and its comfortable old homes, and its air of centuries of solid comfort and prosperity, and its wonderful great open market still existing and probably looking much as it did three centuries ago (no wonder the American Bostonians, remembering that market-place in England, promptly established an open market here!), the thought comes, of what ease and happiness and comfort and fine living were sacrificed for the sake of coming to America; for the Boston Puritans did not, as was the case with the Plymouth Pilgrims, come here from exile but from their native country and their comfortable homes. And yet there was another factor, after all; for they still show, in the English Boston, the gloomy prison where were held in confinement, for mere matters of opinion, some of the very ones who on their release planned the migration to America and freedom. Those men deemed freedom in a wilderness preferable to the chance of further imprisonment even in a charming old town, and preferable to living where their minds, even if not their bodies, would be held in bondage. It is no wonder that America, settled in great degree, both Northern and Southern colonies alike, with people who came seeking freedom from one or another kind of duress, developed from the very first an intense movement toward permanent liberty on this side of the ocean; instead of being mat-ter of surprise that our Revolution came, it would have been surprising, considering all this, if it had not come.

That Boston possesses its hub of the universe, its State House, is because, alone among the great cities of the country, it is not only a great city but the capital of a great State. One wonders just what would have been deemed the hub if it had not had its domed building set up here so prominently. No Bostonian ever thinks of it as the Massachusetts State House, but always as the Boston State House. Boston, the capital of early days, was wise enough to retain the distinction when it grew large. New York was the capital of its State and for a time was even the national capital; Philadelphia was the capital of Pennsylvania and, like New York, was for a number of years the national capital; but both these cities not only lost their headship of the nation but also relinquished such leadership of their own States as comes from being the political center. But Boston, once given the distinction of being the seat of government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, continued to hold it, thus adding greatly to its importance and consequence as a city—and thus securing its most striking architectural ornament, the State House, the most beautiful feature of which is known, from the name of the architect, as the ” Bulfinch front.” Originally, however, it was a front of brick with pillars of white, and originally the dome was covered with plates of copper, rolled and made by Paul Revere, but Revere’s copper has had many a patch and replacement and the entire front of the building itself, below the dome, has been painted; it was for many years painted yellow, but is now white.

This high-set building, on its high elevation, undoubtedly had its inspiration from some Greek temple on a hill. Bulfinch, like the great English con-temporary architects whom he so much resembled, the Adams, gained his knowledge of beauty from an in-tense and loving study of the Greek in books and in travel in Europe.

The building has all the advantage of a noble position of which noble use has been made. Its superb colonnade of pillars is symmetrically so spaced, with four pillars singly in the middle and four in doubles at either end, as to obtain the most admirable effect; the effectiveness of thus using double pillars on the front of a building instead of single-spaced pillars only, being strangely overlooked by most architects. This noble colonnade is surmounted by a temple-like pediment over which rises the great dome, and below the colonnade is an admirable row of arched openings from which the steps sweep down to a broad grassy space which stretches off toward a terrace above the Beacon Street sidewalk and thus toward the trees and grass of the Common, the iron archway at the sidewalk being a most effective bit, in its Greek detail.

The work of Bulfinch is the more notable because there was no model anywhere of precisely the kind of public building which he wished to build. No legislative hall existed such as indicated the general idea of republicanism. France was exchanging its kingly government for the rule of the people, but the theater at Versailles and the tennis-court satisfied the people’s representatives. Meanwhile, in England, the House of Commons was quite content with the magnificent Saint Stephen’s at Westminster. But Bulfinch was a big man, an individual man, who not only utilized the best he saw but who worked along lines of his own originality. And that he was not only original but successful is shown not only by the fact that one State after another copied his general model but by the fact that he personally was chosen to complete the design and the building of the capitol at Washington—the entire world knows with what supreme success.

The Boston State House is a distinctly American building, and everywhere within it there is a general air and atmosphere of courtesy towards strangers, and a readiness to show anything of interest, not only without the desire for tips but without the possibility of giving them. And not only has the American Bulfinch front been preserved, but also the original Bulfinch interiors.

Here, with its windows looking out over the Common, is the original Senate Chamber, with its fine barrel-roof ornamented with classic ornaments on the rectangular spaces of the ceiling. It is a small-galleried room with an air of quiet perfection.

The beautiful room in the very center of the old front is the original Hall of the Representatives. When built, this hall was large enough to hold only chairs without any desks, as there used to be so many members in proportion to the population of the State that the meetings were almost State meetings! It is a large room, made octagonal by four niched corners; these corners, now niches, having once held fireplaces where cordwood blazed cheerily for the very practical work of heating this great apartment. In addition to a large candelabrum hanging from the center of the ceiling, which was a candelabrum in fact, to be used for candles only, each member needed to have a candle at his own seat for use in the early darkness of winter afternoons, and each member was expected to buy his own candles for his own personal use; a state of affairs that would positively appall any public servant of today.

The walls are of white pine, cut and painted to represent even-set blocks of marble, and there are felicitous balustraded galleries for the use of the public. The ceiling is domed above this entire room, but the dome is a long distance beneath the gold dome that tops the building, and is not its inner surface, as one might at first suppose on looking up from this floor.

These old rooms are all in white, which admirably brings out the lovely classic perfection of detail, and there is beautiful relief given by a various use of blue and buff in certain places and by the high-placed windows, rayed and oval. The great coat-of-arms, the old clock, the speaker’s seat, the corridor along the front behind the pillars, each is an achievement in design and dignity.

In these two old meeting-halls are preserved relics which, though few in number, are of profound interest. Here on the wall is an old musket; not a remarkable musket in itself, one would say, but just one of the old-fashioned flintlocks; but it is really one of the most remarkable muskets of history, for it was not only captured in the running pursuit from Concord, but was the very first gun to be captured from the British in the war of the Revolution. Here, too, is the musket that fired the shot heard round the world, for it is the very musket used by Major John Buttrick, who commanded the embattled farmers at their stand at the bridge in Concord. Here, too, is a drum which rattled through the sound of the rifles on Bunker Hill. The intent has been to give place only to relics of special distinction.

In the new part of the building there is a rounding room of yellow marble, richly ornate, which is a veritable shrine for Americans, for it nobly displays three hundred battle flags that were carried by Massachusetts soldiers in the War of the Rebellion.

Also, in the new part of the building is the State Library, where is preserved the invaluable Bradford history, the story of the Plymouth Pilgrims, written by Governor Bradford himself. It is necessarily under glass, and is kept opened at one of the yellowed old pages, where, in plain old-fashioned hand-writing, still perfectly legible to-day, it is set down that “Haveing undertaken for ye glorie of god and advancements of ye Christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye northerne parts of Virginia,” the company are about to frame certain laws and ordinances which he goes on to enumerate. The invaluable manuscript is carefully put into a fireproof safe at the close of every day. It is remarkable for the number of words on each page, for the average seems to be about four hundred. If any visitor wishes to read more than the single page which is shown him under glass, he is freely offered, for perusal, a large photographic copy in which he may, if he so desires, read every page as if in the very handwriting of the old governor.

In the new portion of the building are seemingly endless corridored vistas, with a permeative impression of new mahogany desks and a great deal of bronze and tawny marble. There are also the present-day meeting halls of Senators and Representatives.

In the new Hall of the Representatives, in this new part of the building, hangs a wooden codfish “as a memorial of the importance of the Cod Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth,” as the phrasing was of the resolution which ordered, in 1784, that a cod-fish be suspended “in the room where the House sat.” That was in the old State House, still standing down town, and it would also seem that the custom was older than that particular fish. It is almost certain, too, that this very codfish of wood, now hanging in the new room of the Representatives—their second room in the new State House—is the very one which was suspended in the room in the old State House in pursuance of the resolution of 1784, for in 1895, over a century afterward, it was ordered that the “removal of the ancient representation of a cod-fish” from the old hall to the new be carried out. Whereupon, a committee of fifteen proceeded to the old room of the Representatives, and, wrapping the symbolic wooden cod in an American flag, proudly bore it in state to the new room, which would seem to be the third room for this sacred codfish, as it is commonly called.

But except for the codfish and the Bradford manuscript, and the battle flags, it is the older part of the State House that is of interest to the visitor. And there is more than the old meeting halls of the Senate and House of Representatives. There is still the Governor’s room, an apartment of unusual dignity, . with its white pilasters and cornices and windows and fireplace, all curiously and perfectly balanced. I know of no other such room, precisely like this in proportions, for it is an exact cube in its dimensions of length, breadth and height. And it is a success, in that it looks like a room made for the use of one man rather than for the purposes of a board meeting or an assembly. Also, it is the kind of room which would be not only filled, but would have the appearance of being really furnished, with people standing, as at a governor’s reception. Old-time architects had a way of thinking of such things as the purpose and the use, not only of houses but of particular rooms, and this is one great reason why so much of the work they did is called by us moderns felicitous.

Remembering that Bulfinch excelled in stair design, it is interesting to notice the wonderful little stair-cases in the old part of the building; staircases that are lessons in good taste, as is also the grand stair-case itself, with its heavy four-sided balusters and its very effective mahogany rail.

The entire building, as originally designed by Bulfinch and built under his direction, had a frontage of 172 feet and a height of 155 feet, but, splendid old building that it was, it cost only $135,000. The land upon which it was built was two acres or so of what was “commonly called the Governor’s pasture,” be-cause it was land that was owned by the widow of Governor John Hancock, recently deceased, and although the State appropriated $40,000 for the land it had to pay in reality only $20,000. How times have changed!