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 was destroyed by fire in 1711. As the center of civic, political, and business life, 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 John Hancock and others rented warehouse space in the basement. The National Historic Sites Commission has called the Old State House one of the most important public buildings in Colonial America.
Seat of Royal Government
The Council Chamber of the Royal Governor is located upstairs at the east end of the building, facing Long Wharf and the harbor. This room was the setting for many important speeches and debates by dedicated patriots with the British crown. In 1761, James Otis argued eloquently against the Writs of Assistance, the Crown's policy which permitted warrant-less searches of private homes and businesses. Otis lost the case, but his impassioned speech about the rights of privacy was one of the events that led to the American Revolution. "Then and there," recalled John Adams, "the child Independence was born."
The Massachusetts Assembly
The central area of the second floor was the meeting place of the Massachusetts Assembly, the most independent of the colonial legislatures, and the first to call for sectional unity and the formation of a Stamp Act Congress. One of the world's first visitors galleries was installed in Representatives Hall in 1766.
Home of the Courts
The building's west end was the original home of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the oldest court in the nation. The Court was also involved in the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution, upon which the United States Constitution is largely based.
Official proclamations were read from the Old State House balcony, on the east side of the building, facing the town square and State (formerly King) Street, the main commercial street in the 18th century. The square 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 area of the Massacre.
On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed from the balcony, to the jubilant citizens of Boston. Later that day, the rooftop statues of a lion and unicorn, along with other symbols of royal authority, were pulled down and burned in a bonfire.
After the Revolution
The Old State House served as the seat of the new Massachusetts state 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 first separate City Hall.
In 1841, the building returned to commercial use, entered a period of decline, and suffered 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 as the Bostonian Society, and organized a museum of Boston's history in the Old State House.
Today, the Old State House is located amid the skyscrapers of downtown Boston as a museum of Boston's role in the American Revolution. Operated by the Bostonian Society and owned by the City of Boston, the Old State House is a site within the Boston National Historical Park on the Freedom Trail.
Old State House Preservation
The Old State House is over 300 years old, and is in need of constant care. In 2005, the Bostonian Society assumed sole responsibility for capital repairs and maintenance of the Old State House. To address the multi-faceted needs of this local and National Historic Landmark, the Society is currently creating an updated master plan for the stabilization, restoration, and re-interpretation of the building.
Preservation efforts led by the Society at the Old State House have garnered a number of awards on the national and local level. In 2006, the American Association for State and Local History presented the Society an award for its preservation project on the northeast corner, a project which was also featured on an episode of the History Channel’s series Save Our History. In 2008, the Boston Preservation Alliance awarded the Society its Preservation Achievement award for restoring the tower on the Old State House. In 2015, the Society was again honored with a BPA Preservation Achievement award for the restoration of the iconic lion and unicorn statues atop the east parapets of the Old State House.
RECENT RESTORATION AND REPAIRS
In 2014, work was completed on the restoration and repair of the west façade of the Old State House, which faces court street. All mortar joints along the entire façade were repointed. Loose bricks were reset or replaced, and windows were restored.
The iconic Old State House balcony, from which the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time to Bostonians in July 1776, was in dire need of repairs and restoration in 2014. The decay of wood elements in the easy balcony was typical of preservation struggles faced by historic sites that also function as museums, as they must maintain stable interior environments for their artifacts, as well as for visitors and staff members. Dramatic seasonal differences between interior and exterior levels of temperature and humidity create stressful conditions in the areas like the easy balcony, where the two environments meet. An analysis of the balcony conducted in 2011 concluded that the balcony remained structurally sound, but that its wooden and metal elements required major restoration and refurbishment, particularly where they join the building's masonry. The Society raised the necessary funds and executed the work in 2014-15.
In the fall of 2014 the Society repaired and restored the two iconic statues on the east façade. The two statues were carefully lowered into specially constructed crates and transported to Skylight Studios where they were cleaned, patched, and regilded with layers of gold and platinum leaf. Unveiled during a festive ceremony outside the building in the fall of 2014, they were hoisted back onto their perches atop the east façade.
OUR PRESERVATION TEAM
The Old State House is owned by the City of Boston and operated on behalf of its citizens by the Bostonian Society. The Bostonian Society is pleased to partner with the City of Boston and the National Park Service in the ongoing restoration and preservation of the Old State House.
For information on ways in which you can help preserve this national treasure, please call (617) 720-1713 ext. 160, or send an email.