Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Charmed with the French": Reassessing the Early Career of Charles Bulfinch, Architect

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Charmed with the French": Reassessing the Early Career of Charles Bulfinch, Architect

Article excerpt

Charles Bulfinch casts a long shadow on Boston, his hometown and the major seat of American Federalist architecture. In the last half-century, he received enough scholarly attention to put him on par with other important Bostonians born in the colonial period. Nearly as many full-length biographies have been written about Boston's first famous architect as have been written about the town's most notable founders, influential colonial divines, and important American Revolutionaries. Similarly, Bulfmch's career has been explored more often than those of other early American architects working in and around Boston. Compelled primarily by his architectural work, and secondarily by his long political service on the Boston Board of Selectmen, scholars have extensively explored his dual career from the mid-1790s to his removal to Washington, DC in 1817 when he was called on by President Monroe to be the Architect of the Capitol.1 Almost universally, these studies portray Bulfinch as the man who single-handedly transformed the face of post-revolutionary Boston by turning the colonial town into a model of modern English architecture. As one writer has put it, after returning from a mid-1780s European Tour, Bulfinch wanted to "remake Boston in the image of Neo-Classical London."2

However, there are some significant problems with this interpretation that have long gone unaddressed. For example, although he was a "better sort" Bostonian with a respectable fortune, Bulfinch went bankrupt in the mid-1790s and never fully recovered. In 1811, he was briefly imprisoned for debt.3 Therefore, he lacked the financial resources to transform Boston along the lines asserted without the substantial financial backing of others. Building, after all, is an expensive pursuit. At the same time, while Bulfinch's considerable architectural output was impressive, the buildings he designed were generally clustered - even concentrated - in a few areas of the early republic town. He did not remake all of Boston along the lines frequently claimed because he left whole sections of the town, such as the North End, virtually untouched.

Charles Bulfinch was born on August 8, 1763, in Boston, the son of a family of doctors and a family of merchants.4 Bulfinches had lived in the town since the late-seventeenth century, when they settled in the then less crowded and more fashionable North End. Charles' father, Thomas, graduated from Harvard College in 1749 and trained as a physician in London and Edinburgh. His paternal grandfather, also a doctor named Thomas, had trained in London and Paris a generation earlier. The Apthorps, Charles' maternal line, were wealthy Tory merchants who were closely connected to Crown enterprises and to the Anglican King's Chapel in Boston before the American Revolution. Charles' maternal grandfather, one of the richest men in mid-eighteenth century Boston, had given "most of the money" to build the chapel. His mother worshiped there, and his father became its senior warden after the Revolution.5 By the time of Charles' birth, the Bulfinches had moved into an elegant high-style Georgian mansion on the eastern edge of Boston's West End that more effectively communicated the family's rising wealth and elevated class status. A three-story wooden structure, the 1724 house had a pedimented entryway, comer quoins, balanced facade, and gambrel roof with chimneys located toward the ends, though not at the edge of the building.6

Born when he was, Bulfinch's early life was punctuated by the increasingly revolutionary struggle between Massachusetts and Great Britain, but neither he nor his family were much involved in it. In an autobiographical sketch written sometime after 1831, Bulfinch counted among his earliest recollections the resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765 (when he was two years old), the Boston Massacre (at six), and the Boston Tea Party (at ten). He said that he witnessed the arrival and encampment of British troops (probably in 1774), the 1775 fights at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and the British evacuation of Boston in 1776. …

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