Happy Birthday, Charles Bulfinch!

Born on this day in 1763, Bulfinch was one of America's first architects.
charles bulfinch birthday

Bulfinch and State House images via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Modern-day Boston would look drastically different if it weren’t for Charles Bulfinch, born today in 1763.

Bulfinch was a Bostonian in every sense of the word. He watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from the roof of his childhood home in Bowdoin Square. As one of the earliest citizens of the newly established United States of America, he was enrolled in Boston Latin School and then Harvard University.

After graduating from Harvard in 1781, Bulfinch worked in accounting. While reflecting on post-grad life, Bulfinch admitted he didn’t have much work to do because of an economic slump. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, he wouldn’t realize until later that this worked in his favor, because it gave him the leisure “to cultivate a taste for Architecture.”

The well-to-do Bulfinch used his inheritance to travel to Europe in 1785, studying the art of buildings both old and new. Aside from his observations in Europe, Bulfinch had no formal training in architecture. Yet, he’s been called one of the first native-born Americans to take up architecture as a profession. A few months after returning to Boston from his travels, he designed his first building—the Hollis Street Church.

He’d go on to design many Federal-style wonders, including the the Massachusetts State House, the Maine State House, and eventually the United States Capitol. Bulfinch also built Boston’s first public theater, as well as a courthouse and a prison. He planned commercial buildings, Unitarian meeting houses, and the first Catholic church in Boston. He designed private residences like townhouses and country estates, and looked to European cities to create blocks of handsome rowhouses.

Bulfinch is also credited with being one of Boston’s first urban planners—he served on Boston’s board of selectmen, helping to improve the city street system while transforming the Boston Common from a cow pasture into a city park.

In honor of his birth more than 250 years ago today, we’ve gathered five of his most recognizable works in the city. Happy birthday, Bulfinch!

The Massachusetts State House

State House photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

State House photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Perhaps Bulfinch’s crowning achievement, the Massachusetts State House sits atop Beacon Hill in all of its golden, rounded glory. Inspired by Greek and Roman temples, the Neoclassical, Federal-style construction sits on the former cow pasture of John Hancock. When it was built, its famous dome was copper-plated before being gilded in 1874. A little golden pine cone tops the dome, symbolizing the forests that enabled early settlers to survive off the land.

Faneuil Hall

Faneuil Hall photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Faneuil Hall photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Bulfinch expanded Faneuil Hall in 1806. He overhauled the building’s look during the remodel, doubling its width and adding one-and-a-half stories to its height. The cupola, which also happens to be gold, was moved from the center of the building to the east end, and brick pilasters were added on.

University Hall

University Hall via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

University Hall photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Bulfinch also made his mark on his alma mater by designing Harvard Yard’s University Hall. Made of white Chelmsford granite, the structure was completed in 1815. It dons numerous Neoclassical hallmarks like fluted pilasters and Ionic columns.

The Massachusetts General Hospital Bulfinch Building

Massachusetts General Hospital Bulfinch Building photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Massachusetts General Hospital Bulfinch Building photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

The columns of MGH’s Bulfinch Building loosely resemble those of the State House. The structure is located on the hospital’s main medical campus and is home to the Ether Dome—a circular operating room where ether was first used in surgery. Here, Bulfinch’s themes of domes and columns are evident; if only the Ether Dome was gold-leafed, too.

The Three Harrison Gray Otis Houses

Harrison Gray Otis houses photos via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Harrison Gray Otis houses photos via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

As the third mayor of Boston and an all-around wealthy Brahmin, Harrison Gray Otis spared no expense when it came to his living quarters. Bulfinch designed all three of his homes in the city, which were built in a fairly quick succession. The first house is located on Cambridge Street, the second on Mount Vernon Street, and the third on Beacon Street. Each homes’ designs reflect Federal-style details.


Madeline Bilis Associate Editor at Boston Magazine @madelinebilis
mbilis@bostonmagazine.com