Why I Love Boston: A Cupola with a View

The cupola atop the Old State House has no floor, so you can stand inside only by perching on a step, leaning against a wall for balance, and feeling, all the while, as if you’re about to fall. The room is about 5 feet square, and where the floor should be there’s nothing but the circular opening to a narrow and winding wooden staircase. It’s best not to look down.

The cupola’s walls are, mainly, glass: four arched Georgian windows of 22 panes each. Look east and you can see straight down State Street, which used to be called King Street, and out to the Long Wharf. When the original building caught fire in 1711, the people of Boston rushed in to save a portrait of the queen; the replacement was built two years later (making it the oldest public building in Boston and one of the oldest in America). It was meant to look back, across the ocean, to London. Royally appointed governors stood on the balcony, on the second floor’s east end, watching ships sail into the harbor and yearning for home. But when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud from that balcony in 1776, Bostonians scaled the sides of the building, pulled down the unicorn and the lion, symbols of the crown, and burned them in a bonfire. A monument to monarchy became a monument to democracy.

Once one of the city’s tallest buildings, now it’s one of the smallest. From the street, it looks like a dollhouse. Inside, standing in that tower, you can see the gold-domed cupola reflected back at you in the mirrored windows of skyscrapers that loom like tyrants.

Jill Lepore is the Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include Blindspot, a novel written with Brandeis historian Jane Kamensky, and The Whites of Their Eyes, due out this fall.