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Old State House – Boston, U.S.A

Dwarfed by the towers of the Financial District, this historic building is typical of the modest and unique architectural style of New England in the 18th century. It was the seat of British colonial government between 1713 and 1776 and a replica royal lion and unicorn decorate each corner of the east facade. After independence, the Massachusetts legislature took possession of the building, and it was used fora variety of purposes, including as a produce market, a merchants’ exchange, a Masonic lodge, and a city hall. Its wine cellars now function as a downtown subway station, and it also houses Bostonian Society memorabilia.

EARLY HISTORY

Constructed in 1713 to replace the first Town House, which had recently burned down, the Old State House is Boston’s oldest surviving public building. During its period as the seat of the British colonial government, it was also the Boston center for the political activity that led to the Revolutionary War (1775-81). Prom the first-floor gallery, Boston’s citizens could — for the first time in the English-speaking world – watch their elected legislators debate the issues of the day. The west end housed the county and colony law courts The wealthy merchant and patriot John Hancock, an active opponent of the Stamp Act (1765), which imposed a tax on all paper goods, and the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, had warehouse space in the basement.

THE BOSTONIAN SOCIETY

The Bostonian Society, which maintains the Old State House, also runs the museum inside the building and a library across the street. Permanent and changing displays and exhibits in the museum recount Boston’s history, from its settlement through to the Revolution, and beyond Permanent exhibitions include “From Colony to Commonwealth,” which looks at the role of Boston and the Old State House in the events that led to the American Revolution, and “Treasures from the Bostonian Society’s Collections,” located in the Council Chamber, which features Revolutionary icons and militia equipment. There is also a sound-and-light show on the Boston Massacre of 1770.

LIFE IN COLONIAL BOSTON

First settled by Puritans in 1630, Boston became one of North America’s leading colonial cities. Its life and wealth revolved around its role as a busy seaport, but its streets were crooked, dirty, and crowded with people and livestock. Other problems included waste disposal, firefighting, and caring for the numerous poor. Unlike the other major American cities outside of New England, Boston had a “town meeting” form of government. This was unusually democratic for the time and helps to explain why Boston became a center of colonial resistance prior to the Revolutionary War.

Keayne Hall

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This is named after Robert Keayne who, in 1658, gave £300 to the city so that the original Town House of 1657-8 could be built. Exhibits in the room depict events from the Revolutionary War.

Central Staircase

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A fine example of 18th-century workmanship, the central spiral staircase has two beautifully crafted wooden handrails. It is one of the few staircases of its type still in existence in the US.

Royal Lion and Unicorn

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A royal symbol of Britain, the original lion and unicorn were pulled down when news of the Declaration of Independence reached Boston in 1776.

West Facade A Latin inscription, relating to the first Massachusetts Bay colony, runs around the outside of this crest. The relief in the center depicts a local Native American.

Golden Eagle Sculpture

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This symbol of America can be seen on the west facade.

Tower

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This is a classic example of Colonial style. In 18th-century paintings and engravings, the tower can clearly be seen above the Boston skyline.

East Facade

This facade has undergone several changes. In 1956, a clock from the 1820s was removed and replaced with a replica of the sundial that once hung here. The clock has now been reinstated.

Council Chamber

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Once the chambers for the royal governors, and from 1780, the chambers for the first governor of Massachusetts (John Hancock), this room has hosted many key events. Among them were numerous impassioned speeches made by Boston patriots.

Balcony

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The Declaration of Independence was read from here in 1776. In the 1830s, when the building was the city hall, the balcony was enlarged to two tiers.

SITE OF THE BOSTON MASSACRE

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A circle of cobblestones below the balcony pm the east facade marks the site of the Boston Massacre. After the Boston Tea Party of 1773 (where Boston patriots, in protest at taxation, boarded three British East India Company ships and threw their cargoes of tea into Boston Harbor), this was one of the most inflammatory events in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. On March 5, 1770, an unruly mob of colonists taunted British guardsmen with insults, rocks, and snowballs. The soldiers opened fire, killing five colonists. A number of articles relating to the Boston Massacre are exhibited inside the Old State House.

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Cobblestone circle; site of the Boston Massacre

THE FREEDOM TRAIL

Sixteen of Boston’s most significant historic sights have been linked together as “The Freed om Trail.” This 2.5-mile (4-km) long walking route, marked in red on the sidewalk, begins at Boston Common.

KEY DATES

1667: Boston’s first Town House is constructed of wood; it burns down in 1711.
1713: The Old State House is built as the site of the provincial government.
1780-98: The building serves as the Massachusetts State House.
1798: The building is renovated for private retail tenants.
1830-40: After renovation, the building becomes Boston’s city hall.
1840-80: The building falls into disrepair after being returned to commercial use.
1881: The Old State House is completely restored by the city.
1976: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II addresses Bostonians from the balcony.

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