History of the Old State House building

The Old State House, the oldest surviving public building in Boston, was built in 1713 to house the government offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It stands on the site of Boston's first Town House of 1657-8, which burned in 1711. The Old State House was a natural meeting place for the exchange of economic and local news. A Merchant's Exchange occupied the first floor and the basement was rented by John Hancock and others for warehouse space. As the center of political life and thought in the colonies, the Old State House has been called one of the most important public buildings in Colonial America.

Seat of Royal Government

The Council Chamber of the Royal Governor was located upstairs at the east end of the building, looking toward Long Wharf and the harbor. This room was the setting for many stirring speeches and debates by dedicated patriots against the British crown. In 1761, James Otis argued eloquently against the Writs of Assistance, the Crown's policy which issued general search warrants without charges. Otis lost the case, but his impassioned speech was one of the events which led to the American Revolution. "Otis was a flame of fire," recalled John Adams, ". . . then and there the child Independence was born."

The Massachusetts Assembly

The central area of the second floor was the meeting place of the Massachusetts Assembly, one of the most independent of the colonial legislatures. This Assembly was the first legislative body in the colonies to call for sectional unity, and the formation of a Stamp Act Congress. Although no trace remains today, a visitor's gallery was installed in Representatives Hall in 1766. The gallery permitted citizens, for the first time in the English-speaking world, to hear their elected officials debate the popular issues of the day.

Home of the Courts

The building's west end was home to the Courts of Suffolk County and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for many years. The Supreme Judicial Court is the longest seated court in the nation (over 300 years old) and was responsible for the ruling decisions in many of the early landmark trials. The Court was also involved in the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution, upon which the United States Constitution is based.

Balcony

Official proclamations were read from the Old State House balcony, on the east side of the building, looking down State (formerly King) Street. The area beneath the balcony was the site of the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, when a handful of British soldiers fired into a taunting crowd, killing five men. Today a circle of paving stones marks the spot of the Massacre.

On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed from here, to the jubilant citizens of Boston. Later that day, the lion and unicorn, along with other symbols of royal authority, were taken down from the roof of the building and burned in a great bonfire in Dock Square.

After the Revolution

The Old State House continued as the seat of Massachusetts government until a new State House was built on Beacon Hill. On January 11, 1798, all government functions left the building when the governor, state legislature, and other state officials moved to the new State House. From 1830 to 1841, the building was used as Boston's City Hall.

In 1841, the building returned to commercial use. During the mid-nineteenth century, the building entered a period of decline, suffering many alterations made to accommodate its tenants.

Saving the Old State House

In 1879, a group of determined citizens formed the Boston Antiquarian Club. Two years later, the group reorganized themselves as The Bostonian Society, and began to operate a museum of Boston history in the Old State House.

Today, the Old State House is located amid the skyscrapers of downtown Boston as a museum of the building's history, particularly its role in the American Revolution. The Old State House, operated by The Bostonian Society and owned by the City of Boston, is a site within the Boston National Historical Park and one of the museums on the Freedom Trail.

Old State House Chronology

1657

  • Boston Town House constructed of wood. Funds donated by Boston merchant Robert Keayne to include a marketplace, a convenient room for the Courts to meet in winter and summer, and a room for the town elders to confer.

1711

  • Town House destroyed by fire. General Assembly proposes a brick building to replace it.

1713

  • Present Old State House opens and becomes the site of provincial government. Some portions of the original brick wall remain today.

1747

  • Fire destroys interior and part of brick walls. Present Old State House dates from this time. Figures of British lion and unicorn appear on east side.

1761

  • James Otis' eloquent arguments against British Writs of Assistance stirs patriotic sentiment against British rule. John Adams, a spectator that day, would later write "...then and there the child Independence was born."

1767

  • Public galleries built in Representatives Hall, the first known example of providing public accountability for elected officials.

1770

  • Boston Massacre occurs outside building. Five Bostonians are killed, including Crispus Attucks, by British soldiers. Seven of the British soldiers are later tried for murder. John Adams agrees to represent them in court, five are acquitted, two found guilty of manslaughter.

1774

  • General Thomas Gage arrives in Boston and takes oath in Council Chamber of the Old State House as the new Massachusetts Bay Governor, replacing Thomas Hutchinson. Gage promptly removes meetings of the General Court from the Old State House to Salem.

1776

  • Declaration of Independence read to Bostonians from the balcony. Lion and unicorn are removed and burned at bonfire. King Street is renamed State Street.

1780

  • John Hancock chosen first Commonwealth Governor and inaugurated in Council Chamber.

1780-1798

  • Building serves as Massachusetts State House.

1788

  • Massachusetts ratifies the Federal Constitution, the sixth state to do so. Sessions are held in the Old State House, with final ratification taking place in the Long Lane Meeting House.

1789

  • President Washington visits Boston and reviews parade in his honor from the west side of the building.

1793

  • Open-air banquet at the Old State House in honor of French Revolution. Consumed are 800 loaves of bread and a 1000-pound ox.

1798

  • Building renovated for private shops; wine merchants, wig makers, hatters and a restaurant included among tenants.

1820-1829

  • Second floor used by Masons.

1830-1840

  • Renovated in 1830 by Isiah Rogers and William Washburn, the building is used as Boston City Hall during this period.

1835

  • Publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison is chased by a Boston mob and takes refuge inside the Old State House. He is rescued by marshals and spirited from the building.

1840-1880

  • Returned to use as a commercial building, the Old State House falls into disrepair. Billboards, a porch and a mansard roof are added.

1881

  • The Bostonian Society is founded to preserve the building. The City of Boston agrees to restore the Old State House to a more historic appearance, and leases the upstairs to the Society for use as a museum.

1882

  • Restoration completed under City Architect George Clough and Councilman William Whitmore (the Society's first president). Lion and unicorn are returned to east facade.

1905

  • State Street subway entrance (Blue and Orange Lines) opened under the Old State House east basement.

1907

  • Joseph Chandler restoration. Paint removed from outside brickwork.

1921

  • Fire in attic damaged upper two floors and cupola.

1942-1943

  • Perry, Hepburn & Shaw restoration of Council Chamber.

1956

  • Sundial installed facing State Street.

1960

  • Boston National Historic Sites Commission declares Old State House the most important public building built in America prior to the Declaration of Independence.

1974

  • Old State House becomes a site within the Boston National Historical Park.

1975

  • New exhibits designed and installed for the nation's Bicentennial celebration.

1976

  • Queen Elizabeth II visits the city and addresses Bostonians from the Old State House balcony.

1988

  • Bicentennial of ratification of the Federal Constitution ceremony held at the Old State House. U.S. postage stamp of the building released.

1990

  • Old State House closed for extensive National Park Service/Goody Clancy renovation.

1992

  • Building reopens with new exhibits, office space and climate control.

2013

  • Tercentennial of building.