American Architecture Series
Charles Bulfinch

Biography of American Architect, Neoclassical Federal Style.

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Massachusetts State House (1795-97).
Designed by Charles Bulfinch,
one of the greatest architects of the
late 18th and early 19th century.

Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)


Architectural Education
Early Designs
Neoclassical Architect and Urban Planner in Boston
US Capitol
Legacy: His Neoclassical Design for Capitol Buildings

American Architecture Series
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One of the best known American architects of the late 18th and early 19th century, Charles Bulfinch was - along with William Thornton (1759-1828) - a leading exponent of the Federal Style of Neoclassical architecture. Neoclassicism, with its Greco-Roman domes and columns, was the dominant idiom of 19th-century architecture in America, but the Federal Style was slightly different from the Revival style of Greek architecture practiced by Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), which paid closer attention to the values of Greek art and design Active in the Boston area, where he designed a large number of houses and served as the chairman of Boston's board of selectmen, Bulfinch redesigned the civic centre in a dignified classical style of architecture, and made significant improvements to the city's thoroughfares, drains, and lighting. He also designed the Massachusetts State House (1795-97). However, he is best known for his completion of the US Capitol Building, in Washington DC, which was designed by Thornton, burned by the British and reworked by Latrobe. It was finished in 1829, some thirty-six years after work first began. An important contributor to late 18th century architecture, Bulfinch is seen as the first native-born American to achieve success as a professional architect. (Please see also: American Colonial Art: 1670-1800.)


Architectural Education

Charles Bulfinch was born in Boston into a family with an interest in building going back to the early 18th century. His father was Thomas Bulfinch, a prominent physician, and his mother was Susan Apthorp. Educated at Boston Latin School, his architectural education began in the library of his Apthorp grandfather - a gifted amateur designer who was a friend and patron of the architect Peter Harrison - continued at Harvard University with studies in mathematics and perspective, and culminated in a European Grand Tour, planned and supervised in part by Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly, what most impressed Bulfinch were Europe's recent rather than historic buildings. The neoclassical building designs of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Robert Adam (1728-92) and William Chambers (1726-96) in England; the Pantheon by Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-80) in Paris, as well as French urban planning for function and convenience - all these provided the inspiration for Bulfinch's American version of Neoclassical art. He returned from Europe in 1787, and the following year married his first cousin Hannah Apthorp, with whom he had two sons Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867), a writer and historian, and Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch (1809–1870), a clergyman and author.

Early Designs

Bulfinch's neoclassicism was first expressed in the design of the Tontine Crescent (1793-94) in Boston, a design based on John Wood's Royal Crescent. Other early projects included the Hollis Street Church (1788), a memorial column on Beacon Hill (1789), and the Federal Street theater (1793); the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut (1796); and the Massachusetts State House (1795-97).

For more information about European neoclassical architects, see: Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808) and Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), as well as the English Regency designer John Nash (1752-1835).

Architect and Urban Planner in Boston

The Tontine Crescent project was the first important urban housing scheme undertaken in America, and the loss of his personal fortune in 1795 in attempting to complete it, forced Bulfinch to accept permanent appointment as Boston's chairman of the board of Selectmen and superintendent of police. In this powerful position as architect-administrator, Bulfinch was in charge of the town's police, health, education, sanitation and poor residents. In addition, Bulfinch also managed several enormous commercial complexes, such as the India Wharf (1803-07) and Broad Street projects (1806-07), and designed scores of row houses, such as Park Row (1803-05) and the Colonnade (1810-12), and free-standing mansions, such as the three Harrison Gray Otis houses (1795-96, 1800-02, 1805-08). He also designed numerous public buildings, ranging from the State Prison (1804-05), Charles town, to the Massachusetts General Hospital (1818-23), Boston. He developed part of Beacon Hill, straightened roads, laid out parkways and malls and greatly extended the town's ancient boundaries. In the process Bulfinch created the most beautiful American city of its time and furnished the nation with an unrivaled model of urban modernity and efficiency. At the same time, his contributions to the rest of the young republic were hardly negligible: he designed University Hall (1813-14), Harvard University, Cambridge, and the Church of Christ (1816), Lancaster.

US Capitol

In 1817, President James Monroe (1764-1820; President 1817-25) visited Boston and was so impressed by Bulfinch's architectural and urban planning skills that he appointed him successor to Benjamin Latrobe as Architect of the Capitol and Commissioner of Public Building. As a result, from the beginning of 1818 until the summer of 1830, Bulfinch resided in Washington, his major achievement being the completion of the Capitol after more than a quarter century of controversy. His direct contributions to this project included: the Capitol's wings and central portion, its original low wooden dome (this was replaced by a cast-iron dome in the mid-1860s), the western portico, the old Library of Congress, and the landscaping of the Capitol grounds. Before returning to Boston and retirement, he also designed the Federal Penitentiary (1827-28), Washington DC, and the Maine State House (1829-32), Augusta.

By now established as a major figure in American art, Bulfinch returned to Boston in 1830, continuing to work until well into his 70s. He died at the age of 80.

Legacy: His Neoclassical Design for Capitol Buildings

The design formula for capitol buildings that Bulfinch developed over half a lifetime - the hemispherical dome and columnar facade - had a decisive impact on the design of almost all subsequent state capitol construction in the United States, during the 19th century. Thus, the regional style representing the federal ideal that Bulfinch initiated in Boston in the 18th century became the accepted architectural expression of American democracy in the 19th century. By contrast the Neo-Gothic design style - championed by Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95) - became a favourite idiom for Protestant churches. Interestingly, Upjohn's architect son designed the Gothic style Connecticut State Capitol in a neo-Gothic style. For the leading champion of Romanesque designs for public buildings, see the Louisiana-born Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86).

Other 19th Century American Architects

Beaux-Arts Architecture
Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

Organic Style, Prairie Houses
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Early High-Rise Buildings
William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)
Chicago School of architecture (Skyscrapers)

Twentieth Century Tower Design
Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)

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