Sunday, December 19, 2010

18 December 1794: Charles Bulfinch Obtains Mortgage (and why we should care)

So a fellow, even an important architect—Bulfinch went on to design the Capitol in Washington—got a mortgage: what makes that historically noteworthy? A good question.  Sometimes, of course, MassMoments has to stretch a bit when finding a date to match a person's achievement, but it makes a reasonable case here. As it explains, the importance was several-fold:
On this day in 1794, Boston architect Charles Bulfinch obtained a mortgage for the house he had recently designed and built for his family. The 31-year-old Bulfinch had donated so many plans for city churches, monuments, and public buildings that the architect seemed to be single-handedly re-creating his hometown as a place of classical beauty. A bad investment eventually sent Bulfinch to debtors' prison.
As the article further explains, in 1794, Bulfinch undertook a major Boston project just as the economy tanked:
The result was bankruptcy and time in debtors' prison. The experience forced him, as his wife later said, to make "Architecture his business, as it had been his pleasure."
His career was the more noteworthy as there had been no formal training available to aspiring architects:
There was no such thing as an architectural profession in eighteenth-century America. A few well-educated, wealthy amateurs designed their own homes, but most buildings were the work of men who followed, or occasionally adapted, traditional practices.
Bulfinch acquired his knowledge of the craft from study and travel in Europe, returning with a pronounced neo-Classical taste, which he proceeded to implement in his many projects:
Bulfinch had served on the Board of Selectmen since 1791 and had been active in improving city services and government. Recognizing that he was struggling financially, in 1799 a grateful citizenry elected him chairman and granted him a yearly salary.
For the next two decades, Bulfinch was the moving force behind the beautification of Boston. He turned the Common into a park, laid out plans for Boston Neck and South Boston, and designed an almshouse, a courthouse, a prison, a hospital, churches, schools, and numerous private homes. His crowning achievement was the design for the new State House on Beacon Hill, completed in 1798.
Here, the State House in an 1837 image from a German topographical work:

Here, the State House today:

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