Massachusetts Facts

Part Three

"May the principles of our excellent Constitution, founded in Nature and in the Rights of Man, be ably defended here: And may the same principles be deeply engraven in the hearts of all citizens."

-Governor Samuel Adams, assisted by Paul Revere, as he laid the cornerstone of the New State House, July 4, 1795

The State House

The Old Town House and the Old State House

Nurses HallBoston’s original Town House was a market place on its open first floor and enclosed town meeting space on the second floor which stood at the corner of King, Queen and Cornhill Streets. (Intersection of present-day Court, State and Washington Streets.) The wooden building was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of October 2, 1711. Rebuilt in brick eighteen months later, it continued to serve as a place to conduct the business of the town, as well as a place to hold court proceedings for the county until the interior was destroyed by a second fire on December 9, 1747. Fortunately, the outer walls had been so substantially built that reconstruction of the interior was all that was required. Though burnt, altered and repaired many times over the years, the Old Town house survived carrying on the business of the town and county through the end of the colonial period and into the new republic serving as the Commonwealth’s first State House until January 11, 1798. The Old State House then served as the Town Hall for the City of Boston before becoming the first City Hall of Boston. When a new city hall was built on School Street the old Town House fell on hard times for many years before preservationists stepped in to rescue and restore it. Many important historical events occurred within or upon the grounds of the Old State House such as the creation of North America’s first (and the world’s third oldest) military organization now known as the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered in 1638 with Robert Keayne its first captain, and the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, to name just two. It was John Adams who said, “Here the child Independence was born.”

Massachusetts State House Cornerstone and Time Capsule

Nurses HallAt the close of the American Revolution the state’s citizens and leaders desired a larger and more elegant structure to better represent the new country and optimism of the new age of independence and self-rule. The site of former patriot and Governor John Hancock’s cow pasture, on Beacon Hill, was secured and plans were laid for the new State House. On July Fourth, 1795, in a grand procession lead by Governor Samuel Adams, Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge Paul Revere and Revolutionary War Coronel William Scollay followed by fifteen white horses, one representing each state in the union drew the cornerstone from the Old South Meeting House through the streets of Boston to the top of Beacon Hill. Amidst an escort of fusiliers and a fifteen gun salute that echoed across Boston Common the cornerstone was set in place. During the ceremony two sheets of lead with the corners flanged over was placed under the cornerstone with 11 coins one being a pine tree shilling dating back to 1652, a copper medal with George Washington’s likeness, and a silver plate which may have been engraved by Paul Revere commemorating the erection of the new State House. In 1855 work was being done on the foundation of the State House and the time capsule was unearthed. The contents were cleaned, catalogued and returned to their resting place in a newly built brass box along with new silver and copper coins dated 1851 to 1855 along with an impression of the state seal then in use, assorted morning newspapers, two business cards, and additional script engraved on the reverse side of the original silver plate by then Governor Henry J. Gardner and Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge Winslow Lewis. With the discovery of water penetration into the south east corner of the basement, an investigation ensued and the time capsule was unearthed for the third time on December 11, 2014. The capsule measuring 5 ½ x 7 ½ x 1 ½ inches and weighing about 10lbs was taken by State Police escort to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to be opened, examined, and conserved by Ms. Pamela Hatchfield (Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation). On Wednesday June 17, 2015, which was the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, to much pomp and ceremony mirroring the original procession, the “cornerstone” represented by a granite plinth inscribed with the date of 1795 was drawn by fifteen white horses through the streets of Boston to the steps of the State House where the original cornerstone waited for the commencement ceremony. Governor Charles Baker, Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin and Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge Harvey Waugh, along with many dignitaries of the day, oversaw the formal cornerstone blessings that date back to Biblical times ending in a cannon salute on Boston Common. The cornerstone was returned to its original place rather quietly Thursday June 18, 2015. Items added to the cornerstone time capsule in 2015 were a new silver plate commemorating the occasion and a mint set of 2015 United States coins.

The New State House

Nurses HallThe Massachusetts State House was designed by American-born architect Charles Bulfinch and was completed in 1798. Its neoclassical-federal style was inspired by the magnificent Greek and Roman temples of Europe. In particular Bulfinch was inspired by federal-style civic architecture in London. The most recognizable feature of the State House is its golden dome, which was originally covered in wooden shingles, then copper-plated, before being gilded in 23 karat gold leaf. At the very top of the dome Bulfinch placed a gilt pine cone as a symbol of the forests that made it possible for the early settlers to survive. The State House has been modified and expanded several times. The first addition in 1831, four fireproof rooms were added to the north portico designed by Isiah Rogers for the safe-keeping of the Commonwealth’s records. In 1853 a second addition, also to the north portico, created a much larger space for the State Library and other departments which were designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant was completed in 1856. During this time a basement was added in 1855. The third addition by Charles E. Brigham began in 1889 created the large yellow brick extension still in use today. Completed in 1899 it removed and replaced the previous two additions to the north portico. Between 1914 and 1917 the fourth addition was the Chapman, Sturgis, Andrews designed east and west wings built of white Vermont marble framing the original Bulfinch front of the State House. The fifth addition was a bomb-proof archives constructed in 1958-1960 located in the basement. The most recent addition was the conversion of a former central air and light-well into two floors of hearing rooms below a four story atrium known as the Great Hall completed in 1990. In 1991 Ashburton Park was completed returning what had become a parking lot into a welcoming open public space by placing a parking garage underneath.

Some interesting facts about the State House:

  • The dome was far from watertight when first covered by wood shingles 1798 requiring the dome to be sheathed in copper by Paul Revere and Sons in 1802;
  • The dome was first gilded in gold leaf in 1874 at a cost of two thousand nine hundred dollars and most recently in 1997 at a cost of more than three hundred thousand dollars;
  • The dome was painted a dark gray color during WWII so as not to attract the attention of possible enemy ships at sea or enemy planes overhead and to aid in the minimalizing of any reflected light during the day or during ordered black-outs at night;
  • Brothers John and Simon Skillin, who carved the first figurehead of the U.S.S. Constitution, also carved the pine cone atop the dome as well as assisted in carving the Corinthian columns and capitals. The columns were so strong that with the exception of one they lasted over 150 years. In 1960 all of the columns were replaced by reproductions made of iron;
  • The original Corinthian columns were hand-carved on the front lawn of the State house from solid logs 25 feet long and 30 inches in diameter brought down from Calais, Maine (then a territory of Massachusetts) from the estate of then Speaker of the House, Edward H. Robbins;
    The red brick Bulfinch front was painted white in 1825, painted yellow in 1855, then white again in 1917 to match the white marble wings of the 1914-1917 addition. In 1928 the brick walls were cleaned of paint and have remained unpainted since.

top of page


There are interesting statues on the grounds outside the State House. At the far left (west) is a statue of Anne Hutchinson with one of her nine children. She was banished from the colony in the early seventeenth century because she dared to question Puritan theology. A martyr to her Quaker faith was Mary Dyer, whose statue is at the far right (east) side of the building. The two men whose statues stand by the entrance steps are Daniel Webster, on the left, a spellbinding orator in the U.S. Senate; and Horace Mann, on the right, a compassionate educator who fought for public education for all children. The soldier on horseback near the east wing is Civil War General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. The most recent addition, designed and sculpted by Isabel McIlvain and paid for by the contributions of private citizens, is a bronze statue of President John F. Kennedy on the west entrance staircase. It was dedicated on May 29, 1990.

Looking away from the State House, towards the Common, there is a bas relief monument sculpted by Augustus St. Gaudens honoring the Civil War's Massachusetts 54th Regiment. This first all African-American volunteer unit was led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who died in its first battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. In the same battle, Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, though badly wounded, rescued the flag of the 54th and bore it safely back to the Union camp. For his valor, he became the first African-American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

top of page

Doric Hall

The name of Doric Hall comes from the double row of columns with Doric capitals that Bulfinch employed. A banquet was held there for President Monroe when he visited Boston in 1817, and a reception was given for General Lafayette during his American tour in 1824. It is still used for social gatherings, official ceremonies and art exhibits.

Doric HallThe big double doors at its front entrance are ceremonial doors and are opened on only three occasions: when a Governor leaves the State House for the last time after his or her term of office has expired (a tradition called "The Long Walk"), and when a President of the United States or foreign head of state comes to visit, and when the Massachusetts Regimental Flags are received into the permanent collection.

The room has been carefully preserved and appears much as it did when it was built, except for the marble floor that has replaced the original wooden one. A bronze bust of John Hancock, first elected Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is on the west wall, surrounded by portraits of Artemus Ward and General Gage, adversaries at the Battle of Bunker Hill. General Gage was the last Royal governor of Massachusetts. The two cannons surrounding Hancock were captured during the War of 1812. On the opposite east wall hangs one of the three known full-length paintings of President Lincoln. He was said to be sensitive about his great height and preferred not to be painted in a standing position. This painting by Albion Bicknell was completed forty years after his death. The two cannons below Lincoln's portrait are commemorative cannons that are replicas of the American Revolution.

top of page

Bartlett Hall

Upon leaving Doric Hall, one enters the Brigham Addition of the State House. This addition was completed in 1895 and was designed in the Italian Renaissance style. There is a heroic-sized statue honoring William Francis Bartlett, a civil war hero from the North. Overhead is a colored glass window with the names of various republics.

top of page

Nurses Hall

Nurses Hall There are actually two marble staircases in Nurses Hall. The one on the east side leads to the Senate (in fact, the hall used to be called the Senate Staircase Hall), and the one on the other side goes to the Governor's office. There are many tablets and souvenirs of the past. The most conspicuous is a large statue of a young lady tending a fallen soldier, a memorial to the nurses who took part in the Civil War. Called the Army Nurses' Memorial, this statue was sculpted by Bela Pratt in 1911 and was installed in this chamber in 1914.

High on the north wall are three splendid paintings by Robert Reid representing dramatic events in Massachusetts history. The one in the center shows James Otis, a young Boston lawyer, arguing against the Writs of Assistance in 1763. The Writs were issued by the Royal Governor to enable his officers to enter and search any home or warehouse. On the right, Bostonians are dumping tea in the harbor, protesting the tax that was imposed by a faraway Parliament in England. On the left, Paul Revere is making his famous ride to warn that the British soldiers in Boston are planning to seize the gunpowder stored in Concord. Memorial Hall This circular room is surrounded by tall columns of Siena marble, and its floor is patterned with many other kinds and colors of Italian marble. It was built as a memorial to those who fought and died in the Civil War. The flags now include those of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars. High on the east wall is a painting of the Civil War flags being returned to the State House. The other paintings represent the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, north wall; the Battle at Concord Bridge in 1775, west wall; and John Eliot, a Puritan minister, teaching the Indians, south wall. Overhead is a large skylight of stained glass, showing the seals of the original thirteen states.

top of page

Memorial Hall

This circular room is surrounded by tall columns of Siena marble, and its floor is patterned with many other kinds and colors of Italian marble. It was built as a memorial to those who fought and died in the Civil War. The flags now include those of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars. High on the east wall is a painting of the Civil War flags being returned to the State House. The other paintings represent the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, north wall; the Battle at Concord Bridge in 1775, west wall; and John Eliot, a Puritan minister, teaching the Indians, south wall. Overhead is a large skylight of stained glass, showing the seals of the original thirteen states.

top of page

Great Hall

Completed in 1990, the Great Hall is the newest interior addition to be added to the State House. The purpose of the room is to hold state functions, as Massachusetts does not have a Governor's Mansion. It is decorated with the flags of cities and towns in the commonwealth.

top of page

State Seal Window

A large stairway, referred to as the Grand Staircase, behind Memorial Hall leads to the third floor. On the landing is a colored window showing the various seals that have been used by the governments of Massachusetts. At the top is the one with a figure of a Native American used by the first colony. The central seal is the one used today, adopted under the Constitution of 1780. The figure of a man holding the Magna Carta was used during the Revolution. Surrounding these three seals are the ones used by Provincial Governors from 1685 to 1775.

The motto on the seal used today is Latin and it means, "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty".

top of page

George Fingold State Library

At the rear of the third floor is the George Fingold State Library. It contains over a million volumes dealing with state and local history, public documents, directories, and government laws.

top of page

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the larger of the two legislative chambers; 160 Legislators meet here to discuss legislative matters. The room was completed in 1895 and is constructed out of Honduran Mahogany.

House of RepresentativesHigh on the wall in the front of the room are paintings done by Albert Herter, picturing the growth of freedom in Massachusetts. The one on the left shows the Puritans, led by Governor Winthrop, landing in Massachusetts in 1630. The one on the far right shows an unpopular Royal Governor, Edmund Andros, being asked to leave. The second on the left shows one of the judges of the Salem Witchcraft trials, repenting for having sentenced accused witches to death. Second on the right depicts John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin writing the Massachusetts Constitution. In the middle, John Hancock is shown, asking that the Bill of Rights be included in the Federal Constitution.

Directly opposite the Speaker's chair, hanging in the gallery, can be seen the famous "Sacred Cod", carved out of a solid piece of pine, and symbolizing the importance of the fishing industry.

top of page

Senate Chamber

Senate Chamgers The Senate Chamber was originally used by the Representatives and prior to 1895, the Senate occupied the room across the hall. That is now called the Senate Reception Room. There are forty state senators who meet in this chamber.

The current Senate Chamber is directly under the golden dome. At the base of its inverted rim are three hundred and sixty pieces of carved wood, each representing a degree of the compass. High on the corners of the four walls are carved emblems representing Commerce, Agriculture, War, and Peace. The wrought iron chandelier has a fish worked into the design (it's called the "Holy Mackerel" in response to the House's famous "Sacred Cod"). Two Revolutionary muskets, one British and one American, hang on the south wall.

top of page

Reception Room

Reception Room The Senate formerly met here, and it is now used for meetings and conferences. The unusual ceiling is called a barrel vault because it is carved like the inside of a barrel. Bulfinch used the Ionic form of column in this room. These are the only original hand-carved wooden columns that still exist in the building today.

top of page

Executive Suite

The Governor's office and the Council Room are on the west side of the original building. A reception room, hung with portraits of the most recent Governors, leads into these two rooms. The Governor's Office looks out over the Boston Common and has large arched windows on two sides. The gold star on the east wall signifies that Massachusetts was one of the original thirteen states.

Across a narrow hall is the Governor's Council Room, interesting because its dimensions form a perfect cube. This room was once the Governor's Office.

top of page

Ashburton Park

Ashburton Park, with the Beacon Hill Eagle Monument in the center, has been rebuilt on the right side of the exterior of the State House, where a parking lot had been for decades. The Beacon Hill Monument was designed by Charles Bulfinch to commemorate the events that led up to the American Revolution.

top of page

For more information see "A Tour of the Massachusetts State House".