Not only was he the first American born professional architect, he was the most important until the dawn of modernism and the technological revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He set the tone for both religious and public buildings and left his direct stamp on two great cities.
Charles Bulfinch was born in Boston on August 8, 1763. His father Thomas was one of the city’s leading physicians and the family was prominent in social circles. He grew up and came of age during the American Revolution rooted in the spirit of the city’s liberal Congregationalism and a sense of civic life and republican virtue. He attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University graduating in 1781 following up with Master’s degree in 1784.
The next year his father sent him on the grand tour of Europe. He met Thomas Jefferson who was serving as Minister to France. Jefferson took the young man under his wing. The two shared a passion for architecture, particularly the classic buildings of Rome. In England he was impressed by the neo-classical style of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, William Chambers and the Palladian style being developed in Dublin.
Returning to Boston in 1787 his first venture was not as an architect, but as a businessman and investor. He was a prime backer and organizer for Captain Robert Gray’s voyage on the Columbia Rediviva, the first circumnavigation of the globe by and American ship which helped set the stage for a golden age of Yankee trade.
He used the profits from that voyage to set himself up as an architect. It was uncharted territory. Previously master builders designed buildings based on well-established styles and books of elevations and floor plans imported from Europe. A few amateurs dabbled, mostly designing buildings for their own use. No one was making a living creating new designs for clients—and nobody knew if it was even possible.
His first commission was for the Hollis Street Church in 1788. When their original building burned, the congregation took a chance on you Bulfinch. He built a fine, handsome, building with a neo-classical central columned pediment symmetrically flanked by matching towers. Constrained by the budget of the church, the building was executed in wood. But Bulfinch was clearly dreaming in stone and masonry.
Building churches in and around Boston would be a mainstay of his practice. He was soon able to realize his vision in red brick with white plaster for his signature columns. His designs became both simpler and more elegant, usually incorporating a central tower, often doubling as a clock tower and belfry and capped with a cupola or occasionally a spire. Most of his church buildings have been lost but the New North Church in the North End built in 1804 still stands. It has now been restored and is the home of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. A late example, regarded by many as among Bulfinch’s finest work is First Church, Unitarian in Lancaster, Massachusetts. His style of church architecture was widely copied for decades in New England and where ever the New England diaspora settled.
Bulfinch’s bread and butter in the early years of his practice was designing elegant home for Boston’s elite in the fashionable new neighborhood of Beacon Hill. Several still dot the area including two homes built for his friend and near contemporary Harrison Gray Otis, a leader of the Federalist Party and future Mayor of Boston.
In fact, the association of Bulfinch with Boston’s leading Federalists gave a new name for the architectural style which he was evolving out of the neo-classical—the Federal style. It also led to important public commissions and his own political career.
He married his first cousin Hannah Apthorp, a common practice among Boston’s in-bread elite, in 1788. The young couple had two sons, Thomas Bulfinch future author of Bulfinch’s Mythology, and Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch who became a leading Unitarian clergyman and author. The family aspired to live like Bulfinch’s wealthy clients.
Unfortunately, despite impeccable breeding they did not have the fortune of the merchants and top lawyer/politicians like Otis. They had to rely on his commissions, which even though he was in great demand, proved unreliable—many clients delayed payments or never paid in full, including his civic projects. As a result he was periodically in financial straits. He was even imprisoned for debt while working on the Massachusetts State House because the legislature dallied about authorizing his fees. In 1811, while serving in public office he was jailed for the month of July in a prison he built himself.
Bulfinch’s public commissions began with the Memorial Column to the Revolution erected on Beacon Hill in 1789. His election to the Board of Selectmen in 1791 would lead to more work. But he was a busy and effective public servant during two stretches on the Board, 1791 to 1795 and again from 1799 to 1817 when he served as Chairman. The two terms were interrupted when one of his financial crises compelled him to concentrate on business.
During his second term he also served as Police Commissioner and took a major role in redeveloping central Boston including overseeing the of the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall in 1805, the construction of India Wharf, and the preservation as open land and planning of Boston Common as the city’s central park. He also worked on drainage and sanitation improvement. Much of the handsome central city enjoyed by tourists today on Boston’s Freedom Trail is owed directly to Bulfinch’s work and foresight.
He still had time for important commissions including the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut in1796 and the Massachusetts State House in 1798. The later, constructed on the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking the Common, is often considered his masterpiece. The impressive front façade is dominated by a colonnaded pediment sitting atop an arched stoa and flanked by arched windows. It was surmounted by a dome caped with an acorn which was originally painted light grey to resemble marble. The wooden dome leaked and in 1802 Bulfinch had it covered in copper by Paul Revere who had perfected a method of producing copper in large sheets. The dome was famously gilded with gold in 1874 then painted over during World War II supposedly to prevent light glinting off its surface from becoming beacon to German bombers. It was re-gilded at great expense in 1994 and gleams again over the city.
Other important commissions in Boston and New England included the Federal Street Theater (1793); the Tontine Crescent, a curved row of 16 townhouses around a central garden (1793–1794); the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); Boylston Market (1810); University Harvard’s University Hall (1813–1814); and the Bulfinch Building of Massachusetts General Hospital (1818).
Bulfinch’s life was changed when as Chairman of the Board of Selectmen he entertained President James Monroe on his 1817 tour of New England. The two men were constant companions during the President’s week long stay in the Hub of the Universe where his mission was restoring regional loyalty strained by the War of 1812 and reconciling his Democratic Republicans with the dying Federalists. He found a willing partner in Bulfinch and the two also bonded over personal admiration for Thomas Jefferson who had mentored them both.
Within month Monroe called Bulfinch to Washington D.C. to become the third official Architect of the Capital replacing Benjamin Latrobe. The position paid a handsome $2,500 per year plus the golden perk of “expenses” which rescued the architect from yet another financial emergency stemming from the depression of the New England economy caused by Jefferson’s Embargo of trade with European combatants and the War of 1812 which ground construction in Boston nearly to a halt.
Bulfinch left completion of the hospital to an associate, resigned from the Board of Selectmen and moved his family to the nation’s capital.
He found a big job there. The first task was re-constructing the Capital building itself which was damaged in the burning of Washington by the British in 1814. He completed the Capitol’s wings and central portion including the rotunda, designed the western approach and portico, and original low wooden dome to replaced, the one replaced by the present cast-iron dome in the mid-1860s. He completed work on the Capital in 1829.
Bulfinch also doubled as Commissioner of Public Buildings and oversaw the construction of other public buildings in the city. His vision of a harmonized Federal presence built around Jeffersonian neo-classic style and impressive stone construction not only preserved and extended the grand visions of Pierre L’Enfant for the city, but became a model for public buildings across the country for more than a century.
While in Washington he also designed All Souls Unitarian Church of which he was a charter member along with such luminaries as President John Quincy Adams and Vice President John C. Calhoun. He also found time to work on commissions for distant projects, although he could not personally oversee the construction as was his preference. These included the State House in Augusta, Maine in 1829. He thus had his hand in the construction of three state capital buildings plus his significant changes and improvements to U.S. Capital.
In 1830 Bulfinch and his wife returned to Boston where he lived in honored retirement. He died there on April 15, 1844 at the age of 80. He was laid to rest in the crowded burring grounds of Unitarian King’s Chapel. His family later had his remains removed to a family tomb at Mount Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of a who’s who of the Boston political, religious, and literary elite.