Boston - Freedom Trail: Old State House
The Old State House, built in 1713, is the oldest surviving public building in Boston. . Alternatively called the Town House, the court of the provisional governor, City Hall, and in time the statehouse of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the State House is now operated by the Bostonian Society, Boston's historical society and one of many landmarks along the Freedom Trail.
The original Boston Town House was the bequest of Robert Keayne in 1657. The bottom of the medieval looking wooden structure was a trading market and gathering place for conducting business. Though lost in the great fire of 1711, the current brick building was rebuilt. A 1947 fire destroyed part of the the interior, and was rebuilt again. The building's High Georgian style and formal ornamentation suggests that the 1747 State House was designed by a trained British architect, and not an American.
The red brick building is perfectly symmetrical and ornamented. Its gambrel roof is obscured by pedimented end facades. Its primary feature is a tall multi-part steeple with elaborate clear glass windows. Beneath the restored lion and unicorn are bull's eyes windows, and a ceremonial balcony, ornamented with a segmented pediment over Corinthian pilasters.
The original building housed a Merchant's Exchange on the first floor and warehouses in the basement. On the second floor, the east side contained the Council Chamber of the Royal Governor. This room was the setting for many stirring speeches and debates by dedicated patriots against the British crown. In 1761, the "first scene of the first act of opposition", was James Otis' speech against the Writs of Assistance in the Royal Council Chamber. Though losing the case, Otis's speech was one of the incendiary events which fueled the American Revolution.
The central area of the second floor was the meeting place for the Massachusetts Assembly, the most radical of all colonial legislatures freely elected by the people. The Assembly was the first legislative body in the colonies to call for sectional unity, and the formation of a Stamp Act Congress. In 1766, during the debate on the Stamp Act, which led to the stamp Act Congress, the representatives installed a gallery so the public could sit in on their sessions. This was the first known example of providing public accountability for elected officials.
The west end of the second floor contained chambers for the Courts of Suffolk County and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court is the longest seated court in the nation (over 300 years old) and was responsible for the ruling decisions in many of the early landmark trials. The Court was also involved in the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution, upon which the United States Constitution is based.
Official proclamations were read from the east side balcony. The area beneath the balcony was the site of the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, when a handful of British soldiers fired into a taunting crowd, killing five men. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed from here to jubilant crowds. Later that day, the lion and the unicorn, along with other symbols of royal authority were taken down and burned in a bonfire in Dock Square.
After the American Revolution, the building served as the seat of the Massachusetts state government before its move to the present Massachusetts State House in 1798. John Hancock, chosen as the first Commonwealth Governor, was inaugurated in the Council Chamber in 1780. In 1788, sessions were held here that led to Massachusetts becoming the sixth state to ratify the Constitution.
From 1830 to 1841, the building was Boston's city hall following a rennovation by Isiah Rogers and William Washburn. From 1840-1880, it served as a commerical building. In 1881, after threats of the building's being dismantled and moved to Chicago, Illinois, the Old State House was restored to its original exterior appearance by the Bostonian Society. In 1882 the Lion and unicorn were returned to the east facade under a restoration by George Clough.
Today, the Old State House sits atop the State Street stop on the MBTA's Blue and Orange subway lines (opened in 1905) and houses a museum and is the home of The Bostonian Society.
National Register #66000779 (1966)