Old State House Lion and Unicorn: An Unfolding Story (Part I)

The restoration process of an historic landmark often yields surprising discoveries – old newspapers and handwritten notes buried in walls, names and initials of workmen carved into timbers. This summer, the anticipated restoration of the iconic copper Lion and Unicorn that grace the top of the east façade of Boston’s Old State House, promises such discovery.

The Old State House, constructed in 1713, has offered us a veritable odyssey of reincarnation. In 300 years it has lent itself to changes in use and appearance: site of colonial government, then town hall, then state house, then physical reconfigurations to house commercial offices and retail establishments.

Lion and Unicorn, photo by Nick Trainor
Since 2006, restoration/renovation efforts, commissioned by the nonprofit Bostonian Society, have been ongoing. This year a key initiative is the removal, inspection and restoration of the copper Lion and Unicorn. The originals, in polychrome wood, symbols of British rule, were removed and burned during the passion of the American Revolution. In 1882, when the building was restored to its “colonial appearance” replacements were carved and installed. In 1900, during a period of restoration/renovation, those two rotting wood figures were removed and a Boston coppersmith, Moses H. Gulesian, was commissioned by the Commonwealth to replace them in copper.

Moses Gulesian? Here a story unfolds!

Motivated by a utopian vision of America and fearful of the repression and dangers of late 19th Century Ottoman Turkey, Moses Gulesian, a 17 year-old Armenian, left his family for a long and dangerous passage, arriving in New York City in May 1883. He survived with a few Turkish coins in his pocket and slept on a park bench. After many days, with limited ability in English, he found work winding bobbins in a fellow-countryman’s carpet shop, and eventually secured an apprenticeship in a Worcester sheet metal factory.

Ultimately this almost storybook saga of the penniless, yet hardworking immigrant, would seek citizenship, thrive and achieve fortune in late 19th century Boston.

While personal security, substantial wealth and entrepreneurial opportunities were realized in Gulesian’s adopted country, his commitment to good works and philanthropy was not forgotten. He not only sponsored the immigration of his extended family, but sponsored scores of refugees from the ‘old country’, giving many employment and transitional lodging in his Waltham factory building. In the process, he developed longstanding relationships with a number of progressive figures of the day, including Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Check back next Monday for the continuation of Moses’ story . . .

This article is written by guest author Donald J. Tellalian, AIA, founding Principal of Tellalian Associates Architects & Planners, LLC. He may be reached at donaldt@taap.com. Don has worked on preservation projects at the Old State House with the Bostonian Society since 2005.