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

To most who have heard of Moses Gulesian, he is remembered as the one who rescued the USS Constitution, ‘Old Ironsides’. In 1908, he had read that the U.S. Secretary of the Navy considered the deteriorating Constitution no longer needed and might possibly be towed out of Boston Harbor and used as target practice, ultimately to be scrapped.

Gulesian had become a passionate student of U.S. history. To him, Old Ironsides was an icon, launched in Boston in 1797, built with the timbers of a Boston shipwright, gun carriages built in South Boston, sails made in Boston and copper bolts and spikes made by Paul Revere.

USS Constitution, 1975.0006.010
His offer of $10,000 via telegram to Navy Secretary Bonapart drew a prompt response that the sale of a commissioned ship would require Congressional authorization. Word of this leaked to the Associated Press and an ensuing article in the Boston Evening Transcript created a public furor, forcing the Navy to back down and Congress approving the restoration of the vessel.

Publicity and controversy was also to emerge regarding the authorized copper fabrication of the Lion and Unicorn. Editors of The Boston Pilot condemned them as “relics of royalty” that patriots had burned in their opposition to British rule. Yet in 1882, the Common Council of Boston had those “emblems of royalty” replaced. The Pilot argued for their permanent removal.

In contrast, The Boston Transcript viewed the Lion and Unicorn as merely “orphaned emblems of British Sovereignty.” The Transcript’s position was that their replacement was appropriate to the “completion of the old building as an antiquity.” Despite the passion concerning another replacement, Gulesian’s new copper and gilt Lion and Unicorn were ultimately installed.

Although the golden Lion and silver Unicorn had been restored once since that time, their coats of gold leaf and aluminum have now been weathered away by nor’easter winds blowing through the urban canyon of State Street. Undergoing restoration this year, further discoveries may emerge. From old records left by the Superintendent of Public Buildings, a “box” was placed inside the head of the Lion in 1900 – its contents to be revealed this summer!

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.