Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)
Domestic Architecture
Civic Architecture

    There is perhaps no other body of work which better illustrates the architectural style of the Federal Period than that of Charles Bulfinch. The young Bostonian, often called America's first professional architect, was a herald of the Neo-classical movement that was occurring in Europe at the time. It was Bullfinch who changed the face of Boston, guiding the town from its stiff colonial traditions to the charming and flexible Federal Style. His work would define a city and young nation with the architectural lessons learnt first hand in Europe as his style spread throughout Boston and to the nation's capital
    Born on August 8, 1763, to Thomas Bulfinch and Susan Apthorp, Charles Bulfinch was the fourth generation of a prominent Boston family. His architectural legacy seemed to have been inherited from his mother's family--the Apthorps. Charles Apthorp, Bulfinch's grandfather, donated much of the money for King's Chapel in Boston and persuaded his friend, Peter Harrison, to design the building. Charles Ward Apthorp, an uncle, was the architect of the controversial Apthorp House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as the designer of the famous pre-Revolutionary house at West End Avenue and 80th Street in New York City. Thomas' architectural education began when he was very young, and he was, no doubt, influenced by his grandfather's architectural library which housed French editions of Vitruvius, English editions of Palladio, and folios of William Kent's and Isaac Wares' works. This architectural pedigree seemed to have had its effect on Thomas, and it was obvious that architecture delighted the young boy's mind, a point illustrated by rough architectural doodles that were found on the inside cover of the Latin grammar schoolbook he received when he was ten years old.
    Bulfinch continued his architectural education at Harvard University, which he entered in 1778, and graduated three years later in a war-thinned class of twenty-one students. His years as a student were relatively uneventful and it is generally regarded that his college education contributed little to his architectural background. The Harvard College library at that time included the archeological books which helped spark the Neo-classical movement in Europe: Revett's Antiquities of Athens, Wood's Ruins of Palmyra and Robert Adam' s The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian in Spalatro in Dalmatia. Theoretically, Bulfinch graduated in 1781 with an introduction to Neo-classicism and some training in mathematics and perspective, the foundation for an architectural future. It would take, however, a two year voyage to Europe to enkindle the architectural flame that would burn as his passion for the remainder of his life.
    From June, 1785, to January, 1787, Bulfinch conducted his grand tour through the old world visiting London, Paris, Southern France, Northern Italy and Rome. This voyage, and his exposure to the continent's architecture, only sealed a fate long decided. While on his grand tour, he was the guest of such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette in Paris, where he spent the majority of his time viewing its "buildings and other objects of curiosity". It seems that the Sage of Monticello took an interest in the youth's education, specifically architecture, which must have been a mutual interest. In all likelihood, Jefferson planned Bulfinch's journeys into Southern France and Northern Italy, for it is the same route the statesman would take years later during his own pilgrimage. Bulfinch had the good fortune to travel trough Europe at the height of the Neo-classical movement, observing first hand the glorious style being developed throughout the capitals of Europe. It was these images and influences, freshly imprinted in his memory, that would later manifest themselves in Bullfinch's personal architectural style.

    It was not the revolutionary aspects of Neo-classicism that inspired Bulfinch--as a young provincial from Boston, he was not a Romantic. It was, rather, the spatial possibilities and decorative aspects of the genre, as typified by the English architects Robert Adam and William Chambers, which converted Bulfinch to Neo-classicism. Their influences that can be seen in Bulfinch's own personal style. Like Adam, his style is largely interior focused, as expressed in his room groupings which demonstrate a concern for convenience and freedom of organization unseen in colonial times. He often employed a central room as a focal point of a floor plan, and organized the remaining space around it for function and comfort, customizing each space for a specific use. Bullfinch moved away from the heavy paneling and carvings that characterized the interiors of colonial Boston architecture prior to this time and adopted a light and delicate style, usually through the medium of plaster. His walls were simple, graceful lines, often accented by the use of an alcove. Interior decoration followed the Neo-classical goal of movement through contrast; bare walls were accented with decoration focused on the ceiling and the mantelpiece in the manner of the English style.

    Bulfinch served the town of Boston in a variety of roles-- as a selectman and chief of police--but none were as important as his role as an architect. From his return to the United States in 1787 to 1817, Bulfinch worked constantly to adorn the city he loved with the ornaments of good architecture. His labors were rewarded in 1817 when James Madison, after a visit to Boston, offered him the post of Architect of the nation's Capitol, which he held until 1830.  After his is life of public service was over, Bulfinch retired to the city he loved where he died in 1844.