June 13: Bulfinch Abroad
2016/06/13 § Leave a comment
During this month in 1785 Charles Bulfinch went to Europe.
It’s often observed in history that family wealth (either through inheritance or marriage) assists an architect getting started in the profession. For Bulfinch (1763-1844) things went a little differently. To be sure, familial scrilla supported his extravagant trip abroad in a time that only the creamiest of the cream sent their sons on a two-year-long Grand Tour with the intention to stock a young gent with the right books and engravings and perfume and, in this case, the resultant gentlemanly taste that equipped him to design buildings as a “gentleman.” But then it was the reversal of family fortunes that made it necessary for Bulfinch to make that paper on his own. Law school was not yet the last-ditch of the uncertain, so Bulfinch thought to himself: Why not architecture?
Again, family connections connected Bulfinch with some pretty impressive folks, like, oh, Thomas Jefferson, a mate he caught up with in England. In London, Bulfinch was especially impressed by the modern English architecture as defined by the rather predictable William Chambers and dainty and pretty work of Robert Adam. (One wonders how the Federal Style might have advanced in America had Bulfinch instead spent his time poking around whatever was falling out of John Soane’s brilliant head at the time.) Back in the States, Bulfinch made a pretty impressive name for himself, practicing in a sparing, elegant Neo-Classicism. Observe just a few of his projects, mostly in Boston: the first Harrison Gray Otis House (1796), First Church of Christ, Lancaster (1815), Massachusetts State House (1798), and forgive him the unfortunate first dome of the Capitol in washington (1824). The achievement of the Tontine Crescent (1793, above) more than makes up for that crummy dome. Pity those curving rowhouses were knocked down in 1858, replaced by the kind of blocky thing they liked to build in Boston ca. 1860, which were then destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which was set by Bulfinch’s ghost.
Image: Bulfinch’s plan and elevation for the Tontine Crescent