Possibly the best known of all American "colonial" architects, Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) approached design as an 18th-century amateur gentleman of taste rather than as a 19th-century professional architect.
Charles Bulfinch was born into a well-connected and well-to-do Boston family; his father was a physician and a graduate of Harvard College and Edinburg University. Bulfinch took a degree at Harvard in 1781; then, as soon as political conditions permitted, he took the 18th-century gentleman's grand tour of Europe (1785-1787). On his return, according to his autobiography, he "passed a season of leisure, pursuing no business but giving gratuitous advice in architecture, and looking forward to an establishment in life."
In 1788 he married Hannah Apthorp and designed his first building, the Hollis Street Church in Boston. The following year he provided plans for churches in Taunton and Pittsfield and executed a Revolutionary memorial in Boston, a Roman Doric column of stucco-covered brick, 60 feet high, capped with an eagle doubling as a weather vane (it was destroyed when Beacon Hill was cut away in 1811). In 1792 he designed the statehouse in Hartford, Conn. (still extant though changed in function), and several houses for friends.
All these works were in the fashionable rococo version of the 18th-century classical style popularized in Britain by Robert Adam from the 1760s on, which Bulfinch had seen during his travels in England—heavier and more provincial than the originals, but for that very reason all the more acceptable. They were so well received that Bulfinch was encouraged to erect, on speculation, a 16-house block of uniform proportion, scale, and composition in the manner made famous and fashionable by New Town in Edinburgh, Scotland. Eventually this project, named Tontine Crescent and begun in 1793, was an enormous success, and it set a pattern for similar blocks which give the Beacon Hill area of Boston its distinctive character. But Bulfinch was caught in the brief depression following Jay's Treaty in November 1794 and could not raise enough money to finish it immediately; he went bankrupt in January 1796.
The experience had practical results, which Bulfinch records in his autobiography: "My inexperience and that of my agents in conducting business of this nature … led me to surrender all my property… and I found myself reduced to my personal exertions for support…. " He became de pendent on architectural fees for his living. Fortunately, his reputation was unaffected; his friends rallied round, and he soon had plenty of commissions.
Bulfinch had submitted a plan for the proposed new Massachusetts statehouse in 1787, and in 1795 Governor Samuel Adams authorized construction to proceed under Bulfinch's supervision; the building was completed 3 years later. For Boston he also designed an almshouse (1799), churches (Holy Cross, 1803; New North, 1804; Federal Street, 1809; New South, 1814), markets (Faneuil Hall, 1805; Boylston, 1809), five bank buildings (1800-1815), a prison (Charlestown, 1803-1805), a courthouse (1810), a hospital (1818-1820), and residences (the three for Harrison Gray Otis, built in 1796, 1801, and 1805, are still standing). Recognized as a "genius" who had made fashionable Boston over into his own stylistic image, he received commissions from all over the region and inspired followers and imitators, notably Samuel McIntire and Asher Benjamin.
In 1817 Bulfinch was appointed architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.. In all his previous work there had been no fundamental change in his style of architecture, and he remained essentially what he had always been, the gentleman amateur designing in a tasteful variant of the classical mode. That is how he approached the U.S. Capitol. But there, on the national scene, he was forced to meet a new concept of architecture, and it frustrated him. On first studying the drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the original designers, he wrote: "My courage almost failed me … the design is in the boldest stile." As he completed the center section of the Capitol, the design was much more traditional than Latrobe and William Thornton, the other original designer, had envisaged. In particular, Bulfinch was criticized for making the dome higher than they had planned. Yet it was his changes that made the design all the more acceptable generally. As far as the contemporary public was concerned, Bulfinch was the "designer of the Capitol" and, though little is left of his work because of later alterations, he still enjoys that reputation.
During the 1820s Bulfinch executed several more important commissions: a Unitarian church in Washington (1822), a prison in Alexandria, Va. (1826), and a capitol for the new state of Maine, at Augusta (1829, remodeled 1911). He effectively retired about 1829 and died in Boston in 1844.
Two early biographies on which most writings about Bulfinch have been based are Ellen S. Bulfinch, ed., Life and Letters of Charles Bulfinch (1896), and Charles A. Place, Charles Bulfinch, Architect and Citizen (1925). Bulfinch's work on the Capitol is described by Talbot F. Hamlin in Greek Revival Architecture (1944) and Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1955). For a general presentation of Bulfinch's place in the evolution of American architecture see Alan Gowans, Images of American Living (1964). □
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, xxix/2 (May 1970), 124–31;
Jane Turner (1996);