History of the Old State House – Revolutionary Spaces

The Old State House was the focal point for many of the dramatic events of the Revolution in Massachusetts, although it was not known as the State House until after the Revolution. When this building was first constructed in 1713, it was known as the Town House and it was the center of royal government in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

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. The Bostonian Society merged with the Old South Association in January 2020 to form Revolutionary Spaces.
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 Revolutionary Spaces and owned by the City of Boston, the Old State House is a site within the Boston National Historical Park on the Freedom Trail.

What Happened Here

The governing bodies of the town, county and colony, as well as the courts met at the Old State House. The second floor housed the Governor’s Council Chamber, the Supreme Judicial Court, and the central area of the second floor was the meeting place of the Massachusetts Assembly, an elected body, one of the most independent of the colonial legislatures.

James Otis’ oration against the Writs of Assistance in 1761 was first major protest against British laws. The writs permitted customs officials to search for contraband goods without what would now be called probable cause. Merchants hired James Otis to argue against the issuing of these writs in the Superior Court. Thomas Hutchinson was the chief justice; the court met in this building, upstairs in the Council Chamber. Otis made a four-hour speech, defending the rights of citizens… “This writ is against the fundamental principles of law… the privilege of house. A man is as secure in his house as a prince in his castle.” After conferring with authorities in England, the court upheld the writs. None the less, John Adams would later write of that day saying, “There and then the child independence was born.”

The Boston Massacre occurred in the square in front of the Town House. It was some of the first bloodshed in the years before the Revolution, and a dramatic escalation in the disputes between the British and colonists. In 1768, armed troops were brought to Boston to help control colonial resistance. Nearly 2,000 Regulars arrived in the town of 15,000 people over the next 2 years. The soldiers and the colonists had an uneasy relationship from the beginning, which deteriorated until violent conflict was almost inevitable. The event itself was not really a massacre but an instance of mob violence due to tension between colonists and soldiers, tragically five Boston residents were killed in the scuffle. The event was used by patriots to rally other colonists to their cause against British rule and became an iconic, if misunderstood event.

The Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in Boston from the balcony of the Old State House on July 18, 1776. Abigail Adams was in the crowd that day, and wrote to John (still in Philadelphia) about the event. The emotional scene on this balcony was not the first time Bostonians gathered here for important news, nor the last. The accession of King George III was proclaimed from here in 1761. Just 19 years later, the election of John Hancock as the first governor of the new state of Massachusetts was announced from this balcony. Years later in the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II visited this same balcony and greeted the people of Boston.

Preservation of the Old State House

The Old State House is over 300 years old, and a National Historic Landmark. Revolutionary Spaces bears sole responsibility for capital repairs and maintenance under the terms of a 2005 lease between the city and the Bostonian Society, one of our predecessor organizations.

Preservation efforts led 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. The Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA) awarded its 2008 Preservation Achievement Award for the restoration of the tower on the Old State House. In 2015, BPA gave another Preservation Achievement Award for the restoration of the iconic lion and unicorn statues atop the east parapets of the Old State House.

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 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. Dramatic seasonal differences between interior and exterior levels of temperature can create stressful environmental conditions 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. Funds were raised to execute the work in 2014-15.

In the fall of 2014 the two iconic statues on the east façade were repaired. 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.

The Old State House is owned by the City of Boston and operated on behalf of its citizens by Revolutionary Spaces. We are 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 to development@revolutionaryspaces.org.

What’s on at the Old State House