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Charles Bulfinch

Charles Bulfinch (August 8, 1763 – April 15, 1844) was an early American architect, and regarded by many as the first native-born American to practice architecture as a profession. That distinction is also claimed for Robert Mills.

Bulfinch split his career between his native Boston and Washington, D.C., where he served as Commissioner of Public Building and built the original rotunda and dome of the U.S. Capitol. His works are notable for their simplicity, balance, and good taste, and were the origin of a distinctive Federal style of classical domes, columns, and ornament that dominated early 19th-century American architecture.

Bulfinch was born in Boston to Thomas Bulfinch, a prominent physician, and educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard University, from which he graduated with an AB in 1781 and Master's degree in 1784. He then made a grand tour of Europe from 1785-1787, where he was influenced by the classical architecture in Italy and the neoclassical buildings of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Adam, and others in England. Thomas Jefferson became something of a mentor in Europe, as he would later be to Robert Mills. Upon his return to the United States in 1787, he became a promoter of the ship Columbia's voyage around the world under command of Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806). It was the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. In 1788 he married Hannah Apthorp.

Among Bulfinch's first works were his very first building, the Hollis Street Church (1788); a memorial column on Beacon Hill (1789), the first monument to the American Revolution; the Federal Street theater (1793); the Tontine Crescent (built 1793-1794, now demolished), fashioned after John Wood's Royal Crescent; the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut (1796); and the Massachusetts State House (1798). Over the course of ten years, Bulfinch built a remarkable number of private dwellings in Boston, including a series of three houses in Boston for Harrison Gray Otis (1796, 1800, 1806), and the John Phillips House (1804). He built several churches in Boston, of which New North (built 1802-1804) is the last standing.

Serving from 1791 to 1795 on Boston's board of selectmen, he resigned due to business pressures but returned in 1799. From 1799 to 1817 he was the chairman of Boston's board of selectmen continuously, and served as a paid Police Superintendent, improving the city's streets, drains, and lighting. Under his direction, both the infrastructure and civic center of Boston were transformed into a dignified classical style. Bulfinch was responsible for the design of the Boston Common, the remodeling and enlargement of Faneuil Hall (1805), and the construction of India Wharf. In these Boston years he also designed the Massachusetts State Prison (1803); University Hall for Harvard University (1813-1814); the Meeting House in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1815-17); and the Bulfinch Building of Massachusetts General Hospital (1818). Despite this great activity and civic involvement, Bulfinch was insolvent several times starting in 1796, including at the start of his work on the statehouse, and was jailed for the month of July 1811 for debt (in a prison he had designed himself). There was no payment for his services as selectman, and he received only $1,400 for designing and overseeing the construction of the State House.

Charles Bulfinch

In the summer of 1817, Bulfinch's roles as selectman, designer and public official blended during a visit by President James Monroe. The two men were almost constantly in each other's company for the week-long visit, and a few months later (1818) Monroe appointed Bulfinch the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., which had been burned by the British in 1814, succeeding Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). In this position he was paid a salary of $2,500 per year plus expenses.

As Commissioner of Public Building, Bulfinch completed the Capitol's wings and central portion, designed the western approach and portico, and constructed the Capitol's original low wooden dome to his own design (replaced by the present cast-iron dome in the mid-1850s). In 1829 Bulfinch completed the construction of the Capitol, 36 years after its cornerstone was laid. During his interval in Washington, Bulfinch also drew plans for the State House in Augusta, Maine (1829-32). He returned to Boston in 1830, where he died on April 15, 1844, aged 80, and was buried in King's Chapel Burial Ground in Boston. His tomb was later moved to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bulfinch married Hannah Apthorp, his first cousin. Their sons include Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) of Bulfinch's Mythology, and Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch (1809-1870), Unitarian clergyman and author.

In 1943, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Charles Bulfinch was launched. She was scrapped in 1971.

Meeting House, Lancaster, Massachusetts

The Massachusetts State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798.

Massachusetts General Hospital

Maine State House, Augusta, Maine

The Hollis Street Church, built 1788.

Faneuil Hall expansion.

Tower, Arlington, Massachusetts

2nd Harrison Gray Otis House, 85 Mount Vernon Street.

1st Harrison Gray Otis House, 141 Cambridge Street.

University Hall (Harvard University)
BULFINCH, CHARLES (1763-1844), American architect, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on the 8th of August 1763, the son of Thomas Bulfinch, a prominent and wealthy physician. He was educated at the Boston Latin school and at Harvard, where he graduated in 1781, and after several years of travel and study in Europe, settled in 1787 in Boston, where he was the first to practise as a professional architect. Among his early works were the old Federal Street theatre (1793), the first play-house in New England, and the "new" State House (1798). For more than twenty-five years he was the most active architect in Boston, and at the same time took a leading part in the public life of the city. As chairman of the board of selectmen for twenty-one years (1797-1818), an important position which made him practically chief magistrate, he exerted a strong influence in modernizing Boston, in providing for new systems of drainage and street-lighting, in reorganizing the police and fire departments, and in straightening and widening the streets. He was one of the promoters in 1787 of the voyage of the ship "Columbia," which under command of Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) was the first to carry the American flag round the world. In 1818 Bulfinch succeeded B.H. Latrobe (1764-1820) as architect of the National Capitol at Washington. He completed the unfinished wings and central portion, constructing the rotunda from plans of his own after suggestions of his predecessor, and designed the new western approach and portico. In 1830 he returned to Boston, where he died on the 15th of April 1844. Bulfinch's work was marked by sincerity, simplicity, refinement of taste and an entire freedom from affectation, and it greatly influenced American architecture in the early formative period. His son, Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch (1809-1870), was a well-known Unitarian clergyman and author.

The Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch (Boston, 1896), edited by his grand-daughter.
"The Architects of the American Capitol," by James Q. Howard, in The International Review, vol. i. (New York, 1874).

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bulfinch, Charles