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Monday, September 23, 2013

Charles Bulfinch

Massachusetts Statehouse, Boston, Charles Bulfinch

Charles Bulfinch (1763-1845)
One of the things I've consistently tried to do in my efforts here is to bring to light the life and times and creative output of individuals whose work is important enough to be recognized, yet whose lives seems not to have been so. An interesting paradox has to do with these artists' chosen media. For example, filmmakers, are quite often rich and famous, their names very nearly household words. Painters...not so much (especially the rich part). Even so, their name recognition level hovers far above that of sculptors, song writers, poets, and, perhaps at the very bottom of such a list--architects. I guess the moral of this observation is that if you want to be famous in the creative arts, don't become an architect. I recently stumbled upon a lengthy list of several hundred American architects. In scanning the list, I was dismayed to realize I recognized only about one percent (two at most) of the names listed. Worse still, being a student of art, especially art history, and fairly familiar with the art of architecture, if I recognized so few, that means most people would know far fewer. During the coming weeks and months, I hope to do something about that.

Bulfinch's dome, U.S. Capitol, 1823-55.
Boston colonial architect, Charles Bulfinch (above, left), is a good place to start. Insofar as the fame game is concerned, Bulfinch has faired pretty well, probably most famous for his dome--the Bulfinch Dome (above) over the pre-Civil War U.S. Capitol. Ironically, though many of his buildings still stand as models of the best Classical architecture the U.S. has to offer, his dome does not--torn down and replace by the current dome designed by Thomas U. Walter around 1855. Bulfinch's dome was not considered grand enough for the Capitol expansion ongoing at the time. My guess is, if you know little of Bulfinch, you know far less about Thomas Walter, but that's an issue for another time.

The Maine statehouse was modeled after Bulfinch's earlier Massachusetts statehouse.
Maine was originally a part of Massachusetts. The Connecticut statehouse was replaced
by a larger, Gothic Revival structure in 1871.
Bulfinch could well be considered America's leading Capitol architect. Legislatures meet, or have met, in his capitol buildings in the great states of Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut (more than any other single architect). Topping off this string of legislative successes, in 1817, he succeeded Benjamin Latrobe as Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (hence the dome). And while Latrobe could reasonably be considered the designer of the Capitol, domes were considered at the time as something of a frivolity, thus they were delayed until all the "important" parts of the building were in place. As domes go, Bulfinch's capitol dome, completed in 1823, though more impressive than William Thornton's original design based on that of the Pantheon in Rome, was still a masterpiece of architectural understatement (which probably accounts for why it existed for little more than thirty years. It was an unadorned, modest hemisphere resting on a low drum. Walter's design (the one we now know and love) seems downright extravagant by comparison.

The First Church of Christ Unitarian, Lancaster, Mass, 1817, Charles Bulfinch,
one of the architects most beloved works.
Charles Bulfinch did not live by capitols alone (even having done three of them). His works also include a number of stately homes of all sizes, in and around Boston, as well a major buildings for Harvard University, the remodeling of the city's landmark Faneuil Hall, the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boylston Market, the Boston Commons, and the India Wharf. Despite all these projects and being fully employed all his professional life, Bulfinch is said to have suffered repeated bouts with insolvency. In July, 1811, he was to spend a month in the Massachusetts State Prison for non-payment of debts. It was a building he'd designed himself some years earlier.

Massachusetts State Prison, 1803, Charles Bulfinch.
Thirty days for being a deadbeat.

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