The Massachusetts State House, A Tragedy In the Making

Hi Everyone,

The other day, thanks to darling George, who leaves a lot of lovely comments, I joined a one-hour tour of the Massachusetts State House.  It is a five-minute walk from where I’m currently living– mostly uphill. This a two-part post.

 

If you have read Part 1, to quickly get to Part 2
please click the link below:

Part 2 Begins Here

 

If you haven’t read anything yet, please continue from here. It’ll be more fun that way.

 

This was not the first visit to the state house, the capitol building of Massachusetts. Cale and I took a self-tour last March.

 

Today, I’m sharing photos from both visits and some interesting things I learned.

 

Massachusetts State House August 9, 2023 - photo LBern

As an aside, I had to wait patiently to get this shot while a dozen tourists each had a solo pic taken of themselves in front of the state house. In August, you rarely hear anyone speaking English in Boston.

 

Laurel, what do you mean by a tragedy in the making? Are you saying the Massachusetts State House is unsafe?

 

Well, we’ll be getting to that. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first trip with Cale in March was a self-guided tour. You go through security and can go through whatever door is open. And, we did!

This past Wednesday’s tour was through the ICAA, the New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. And, while we saw a good portion of the state house, the tour led by John Hobson, Senior Project Manager (Retired) from Colantonio Inc., focused primarily on the MA State House Chamber renovation that was finished in 2018. We also looked at some other areas of the building they renovated.

Massachusetts State House

 

Both visits began with a walk past the dashing General Hooker on a horse into the eponymous Hooker entrance.

 

General Hooker Entrance Massachusetts State House

 

Why are y’all giggling?

 

Is that where the hookers go into the Massachusetts State House, Laurel? teehee

 

Oh, I see… I’ve got a bunch of third-graders reading the blog today. ;]  Well, even though it is well-known that the handsome General Hooker was quite the lady’s man, it is believed the term “hooker” had a different origin.

But, before we went in, we had a short orientation with John Hobson, our guide. As stated earlier, he was the senior project manager on a sorely needed renovation. The last major reno happened in the 19th century!

 

Although, the Beaux-Arts Hooker entrance in a newer limestone-clad wing was constructed in the early 20th century.

 

The original Brick building with the golden dome was designed by Charles Bulfinch, THE premier architect in Boston, in the late 18th century when the new state house was built.

It was built because they had outgrown the old state house.  You can see it here. The old state house, built in 1717, is the oldest public building in Boston.

 

Boston-view-1841-Havell via Wikimedia

Boston-view-1841-Havell via Wikimedia.

The Mass State House was completed in 1798, and this artist’s depiction is before they began filling in the back bay.

 

Before we enter the Senate chamber tour and surrounding areas, I’d like to show you some other spaces not on the tour.

 

Massachusetts State House atrium

Massachusetts State House Atrium

John Hancock -Massachusetts State House
John Hancock tribute -Massachusetts State House

 

Greek Key Mosaic Mass State House

Greek Key motifs and other neoclassical details are throughout the MA State House.

 

Massachusetts State House Library

 

The State Library of Massachusetts.

 

While we did visit the library briefly, we did not go up on the balcony on the guided tour. This image is from last March.

rosette detail library Mass State House

You might think the color scheme is unusually bright. However, some of you may recall from my trip to the Otis House in the fall of 2022 that the Bostonians of the late 18th c. adored vivid color schemes. That was also a Charles Bulfinch design.

 

MA State House rosette detail

Now, that’s a rosette!

MA State House Library detail frieze and cornice

A neoclassical frieze and cornice in the State Library of Massachusetts.

 

map of Boston 1877

A map of Boston in 1877. You can see the Mass State House in the middle with the gold dome. The large patch of lawn is Boston Common, where the Puritans frequently hanged folks for heinous crimes, such as being unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

 

However, that mostly happened to those who had the misfortune to be born with two X chromosomes.

 

I learned about that on another tour last fall.

The public garden is to the right of Boston Common, and then you can barely make out a tiny row of trees. My building broke ground in 1879 and would be on the far right, just a bit above the Charles River.

rotunda Massachusetts State House
Above the breathtaking rotunda.

dome Massachusetts State House

This is not the gold dome. The dome is beneath the senate chambers, which have the gold dome.

dome Massachusetts State House
So many gorgeous images it isn’t easy to decide, so a little closer view is coming up.

dome stained glass light-pilgrims on the Mayflower
I don’t know if you can read that sign, but those are the pilgrims on the Mayflower!

gorgeous murals newly restored

We will be coming into this space, which I’ve dubbed “the mausoleum.”

 

However, we need to start the tour!

 

We will return to the mausoleum shortly, where you will see something that has rocked me to my core.

About 18 of us were on the tour, including our guide and host from the ICAA and state house representative. We went up in a couple of groups by elevator to the MA State Senate Chamber.

Time is Running Out MA State House Senate Chamber

And here we are… in the newly refurbished, state-of-the-art senate chamber.

 

Music Time!

Okay, my boys forced-fed my alternative rock. And you know what? I really like some of it. Every time I see this room, I am instantly reminded of —

Time is Running Out, featuring legendary frontman Matt Bellamy and his band, Muse.

Oh, you thought I was going to play Mozart? Yes, usually, but not today.

 

Rumor has it the song, which came out around 2007, was based on the Massachusetts State House Senators. ;]

 

After hours… of course. ;] ;]

Enjoy!!!

 

Oh, those naughty senators.

Well, you haven’t seen anything yet.

 

1200 pound chandelier Massachusetts State House

The chandelier weighs 1200 pounds. They wait until several of the bulbs are burned out to change them. It’s a nerve-wracking production, we were told.

Yes, that’s a codfish. The House of state representatives had one in their chamber, and the senators were jealous, so they were also given a cod. Sounds fishy to me. Oh well…

Everything in the room was pulled apart. John said there were 50 coats of paint on everything, and all of it was stripped.

 

1200 pound chandelier Massachusetts State House

See the rosette openings where the lights are? That is part of the HVAC system in the openings without lights. How clever is that!

Carefully camouflaged in the darker portions of the ribs are small dots painted to match. They house the automatic sprinkler system in case things get too heated in the chamber. ;]

 

John Hobson talking about the details of MA senate chamber renovation

Above, John is sharing much about this gorgeous room. That vent is the HVAC intake.

 

He didn’t know the paint colors, so I pulled up the Benjamin Moore historical color chart on my phone.

 

Benjamin Moore Hepplewhite Ivory hc-36

The color was a spot-on match to Benjamin Moore Hepplewhite Ivory hc-36.

Well, Time IS running out for today.

Wait, Laurel, you forgot to tell us about what has rocked you to your core.

No, I haven’t forgotten. ;] But, you will have to wait because my fingers are bleeding now. ;]

 

Gates of Heaven Massachusetts State House
However, this guy knows. That’s General William Francis Bartlett (1840-1876). He has witnessed unspeakable atrocities that could’ve been prevented.

You will find out soon…

But, here’s a clue.

32 guard rail and me 33 sitting down
Monday evening, I will share my discoveries with you…

Be forewarned. Some of you who suffer from vertigo might need to take something before reading. And, no. I’m not joking.

 

If it’s so awful, Laurel, why are you smiling?

 

I’m smiling because who wants to look at someone frowning? Besides, smiling hides some of the effects of aging. lol

To be continued…

*********************************************************

Part 2 Begins Here

 

Hi Everyone,

Welcome back

As promised, I’m going to share my discovery, which should get more press than my little blog.

 

However, I have vowed that if I see something, I’m going to say something.

 

All of this ties into the recent topic of building codes as it applies to my staircase barricade.

As the code is written, it does say my unit must have a 42″ high barrier in my living room.

 

However, I believe some of you missed the part where my architect found a clause that allows us to do a 36″ barrier.

 

Today, we’re going to take a closer look inside two spaces in the Massachusetts State House.

 

  • The “mausoleum”, adjacent to the rotunda
  • The balconies in the senate chamber.

 

First, the mausoleum, as I fondly call this space.

Please scroll up until you come to the pic of me sitting on the floor. You can’t see that I’m sitting on the floor, but I am.

 

Why were you sitting on the floor, Laurel?

 

Great question! I was sitting on the floor to measure myself next to the marble guardrail next to my head. Sitting down, I measure 33″.  Now notice that the wall looks to be two inches below the top of my head. But, let’s deduct one inch for my hair. That makes this guardrail only 32″ high, if that.

 

According to the IBS Building Code, the guardrail height for all public buildings is ALWAYS 42″ high.

 

mausoleum marble deathdrop
Do you HEAR me? The building code says 42″– MINIMUM!!!

 

Laurel, please calm down.

 

No! I will not calm down. My Hungarian blood is boiling. So fair warning. I’m going to take you right to the edge.

 

 

This is the top of the 32″ high “guard rail.”  Not only is it dangerously low. It is incredibly easy to sit here. You can SIT on the guard rail.

 

marble death-drop cliff -Massachusetts State House
Hey, come join me. The view is spectacular!

Why not? You’re not afraid, are you?

FraidycatFraidycatFraidycat!!! ;]

 

mausoleum - Massachusetts State House
There’s the guard rail (underneath the Ionic Order columns) in a pic I took last March on the self-tour with Cale. See those young men? I know they look real; however, they are statues to honor  the 100s of school children whose lives were tragically cut short due to the negligence of someone. Who, I’m not sure.

 

I asked John Hobson about the very low, very wide ledge.

 

He said with a chuckle. “I know– fwiiiippp! (indicating people crashing to their deaths onto the unyielding marble floor 20 feet below. At least!) I felt that we should add something to make it safer, but the committee didn’t want to disturb the original architecture.”

 

WHAT???

Obviously, Charles Bulfinch’s aim was population control.

See the bronze statue of a woman leaning over someone. Please remember this. You will soon find out what’s going on.

kiddie slide - MA state house mausoleum
This right here is numerous code violations.

 

Two seconds after I took this photo, can you guess what my 32.75-year-old son did?

 

He turned around and sat on that wide, sloping marble slab, all set to slide down until I immediately started screaming for him to stop. 😳🙈🥹

Sure, go ahead and laugh.

Please notice that there is no handrail on the kiddie (or adults who still act like kiddies) slide side.   Yes! Another code violation.  Handrails are not allowed to be more than 2.5 inches wide. The slide is not a handrail.

The staircase is at least 60″ wide. All public staircases must have two handrails, and all staircases wider than 44″ no matter where they are, must have two handrails.

 

This is also a violation of the ADA!

 

There’s the bronze statue again of the woman leaning over– Yes, a body. I realize only now, that’s to commemorate the fallen schoolbuses of children and their teachers who lost their own lives trying to save the children. What a tragedy that didn’t need to happen had they adhered to the building codes.

But, why isn’t this public knowledge?

I googled it, and there have been some senators who’ve fallen on the ubiquitous marble. You can read about Senator Lovely here. Yes, her name is “Lovely.” Some other senators have fallen, but no details were given.

 

The thing is, what did they do with the bodies after they fell to their deaths at the Massachusetts State House?

 

trap doors for bodies Massachusetts State House

Later on in the tour, I began noticing a plethora of trap doors, one big one and one smaller one adjacent.

That’s when I’m pretty sure I solved the mystery of the missing people.

The larger trap door is where the custodians stash the grownups and larger children. Everyone else, small enough, gets stuffed into the small trap door. From there, they go down a long-hidden pipe that connects directly to the Charles River, where their bodies float out to the sea before sinking. ;]

 

Very few, if any, of the balcony railings in the state house are 42″ high.

 

press box - with 30 high not up to building code guard rail

However, let’s go back to the Senate chambers, to the press boxes you may have noticed earlier.

Across the way, we see a twin press box. From the front, the railing looks to be okay. However, there is at least one foot devoted to the floor joists. Indeed, the original railing was maybe all of 24″ high.  So, what did they do? They added another eight inches, again falling several inches below code, and not only that, no opening on a guardrail can be large enough to allow a four-inch ball to pass through.

 

Oh, well, they’re only the press.

 

Some feel the world would be better off without a few of them. To be clear, I’m neutral on that notion, and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.

Why are you looking at me like that?

Look, I don’t make the rules. They spent some 23 million bucks renovating this lovely room, and they can’t even make it up to code?

 

For the love of God, this is the house of the highest authority in the State of Massachusetts; they’re not setting a very good example.

 

The message is clear. “Ignore the building codes, and do whatever the hell you want.”

Or is it, “Do as I say, not as I do?”

Incidentally, I only noticed the balcony issue after I took the shot. I was taking a photo of the chandelier from up high.

Of course, I don’t really think any busloads of children fell to their deaths.

At least, I hope not!

The end.

 

Okay, during my research, I found a wonderful article that shows the Senate chamber renovation. Check out that scaffolding!

And, here’s another article showing the cloying blue color it was previously painted.

Sooo, much better now!

As promised, while I don’t know the precise colors they use, however, I can give you some very close colors. Please remember that the chamber has a unique lighting situation; all lights were on.

 

As I always say, “If you see a color you like, match what you see, not what the color actually is.” That’s because the color used in your inspiration room will most likely look quite different in your space.

 

possible paint colors used for the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber

 

32" high x 12" deep guard rail - Massachusetts State House

 

The Massachusetts State House is an exquisite building, and I very much recommend that you stop by for a visit when you’re in Boston. It’s around the corner from the Boston Athenaeum and at the top of Beacon Hill.

xo,

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16 Responses

  1. I used to be an urban planner/zoning code administrator. Although your post is tongue-in-cheek, there are some reasons why the state house railings don’t meet current code:

    1) Original railings are grandfathered in if they are not altered or rebuilt. Being marble, they are going to stay put for a long time.
    2) Most building codes have exemptions for buildings over 80 years old, and some can be vague and left to the discretion of the building inspector/administrator. I imagine there is some sort of committee or department in charge of the capitol building that makes the decisions. If one renovates to more than 50% of the adjusted basis (value of property minus value of land plus improvements) then current building code can kick in, but usually not to the extent that you have to tear out staircases and other character-defining features. It can be bit of of a judgement call to where to draw the line.
    3) Government buildings do not have to meet local or state government requirements, especially zoning requirements. I never understood why exactly, and wish that government offices did follow rules as much as possible, rather than sometimes blithely ignoring their own regulations while imposing them on others.
    4) I don’t know what clause allowed you only 36″ railings in your home, but it could have been the historic exemptions, or because the stairs are only connecting two floors. Since it is a new build that was not previously in your home, it probably is required to meet current code. Exemptions are more likely on the exterior and where the structure cannot accommodate new standards easily, and safety usually trumps aesthetics. Being in a historic district might offer you some protection, but interiors are usually not regulated the way exteriors are.

    Personally, I think railing requirements in the US are a bit ridiculous and do a lot to damage many fine old buildings, especially when people are unaware of what removing the original can force you to do with the replacements. This Old House and Hometown have some good examples of how to adapt railings to meet code and not look terrible–basically it helps to divide them horizontally and/or to add less intrusive metal, glass or cable filler and rails. The Old House Guy blog has an extensive section on traditional porch design and proportions to help homeowners from making crimes against old houses porch mistakes.

    I lived in Germany for a long time, and I can tell you that there is no such thing there that I could see. They have the attitude that if you are stupid enough to lean over a too-short railing or a cliff and fall off, that is your fault. I have climbed up castle walls and church roofs with barely an open rail to cling onto. Quite the adrenaline rush in a stiff wind!

  2. Okay, class, if you would please kindly scroll back up to the close-up photo of the rosette, you may finally understand where the term “egg and dart” comes from, for a type of molding.

    Class dismissed, time for recess.

  3. Laurel. Please don’t be concerned about “Their” violations. Unless u have heavy bags of gold, just follow the code rules.
    The time to rebel is when u see somebody being harmed. Codes insisted upon keep city workers hired.
    I’ve fought my share of battles, including the city where I live.
    Got to know when to hold them and know when to walk away

  4. Hi Laurel, I feel your pain with the building codes you are dealing with because I am a believer in less government in our lives, so I am not always agreeable when they intrude into our homes, therefore you won’t be very shocked when I say what I’m going to. As far as the State house and the codes for the guard rail being ignored I suppose that in all these years there have been no deaths or horrible injuries sustained by visitors, because if there were, I believe it would have been remediated by now. Also, like it or not, people need to police themselves throughout their lives because as my very wise uncle always told us, “you have to be smart to stay alive!”. Have a great day.

  5. Oh, laughing out loud about the trap doors purportedly used to hide the bodies of unsuspecting folks who died from falling over the un-railings! Lovely building. Not so sure about the fish at the top of the chandelier, though. Thank you for this nice tour of a beautiful building and the color palette of this historic building.

  6. It is an exquisitely beautiful building, that’s for sure.
    However, the code violations just show the hypocrisy of our government. The rules apply to ordinary people, but not to the government or its officials. Once you get to public office, it’s a free for all. Just read the news.

  7. Such a lovely building. Yet the disregard of building codes only exemplifies how government officials operate- THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO US! Massachusetts is notorious for ridiculous codes and laws. A week after we put our house on the market in July of 1995, we got caught up in their septic mandate that cost us $50,000 to replace a perfectly working system because it didn’t have all the modern bells and whistles. The good news is that we did finally escape the state leaving behind a property that now was “beautified” with concrete walls to retain a new leach field where trees and rocks used to live on a serene hillside. I’m sure they could come up with some architecturally pleasing fixes to all the code violations in the State House, they just don’t want to spend the money.

  8. I just have to add that I know a family with the last name of Hooker and feel badly for them every time they meet new people!
    I love the chandelier, but not so sure about the codfish!

  9. Laurel!

    You are making us wait for tomorrow? More than 12 hours? That’s so pre-20th century of you! (Actually, it’s great to be reminded of the joys of delayed gratification, although it sounds pretty somber…)

    Looking forward to reading the rest of the post! Love the beautiful rotunda floors, and laughed over the codfish!

  10. Just like Shirley, I’d love to know what you think the darker shade might be. Beautiful restoration. Thank you for sharing!!

    1. Hi Palmer and Shirley,

      I tried looking it up, and all I could find was that the colors were restored to Bulfinch’s original colors. I’ll link tomorrow to some other articles that show what went into the reno which cost 26 million! You’ll also see the horrid shade of blue the room was painted previously.

      After not finding anything conclusive, I got my fan deck and the one I brought with me has most of those colors missing! Then, as I was looking, the entire fan deck fell apart! They need to retire some of their colors.

      However, I’m going to my CommAve home in a bit, and I’ll see if I can find a better fan deck.

      There are a bunch of colors it could be, and that goes for the cream, as well. Of course, there’s the lighting. I did color correct the images, but even so, it’s difficult to get 100% accuracy.

      So, for tomorrow night, I’ll give a few possibilities for both the cream and the darker color. Right now, the strongest contender I have found for the deeper shade is Jamesboro Gold hc-88. It is not gold. It’s a deep, rich, deep tan with a touch of olive.

      But, another great color in this family is Kingsport Gray hc-86 – BM calls it “taupe.” No, taupe has a pink or red undertone, Kingsport has a green undertone, but more subtle than hc-88.

  11. Thank you for this beautiful post. For some of us who get lost in your renovation posts this was a joy to read.

  12. That Hepplewhite Ivory color is very pretty, but I’m also curious to know what that tannish brown shade could be in the upper section of the Senate chamber. I like how it looks good with more light but love the darker shade, too. My bedroom has 4 skylights on a hip roof like this and difficult to come up with a paint color with “lovely” grey Ohio sky reflecting in!

  13. Ok, I know this wasn’t about the music or was it? Loved the song and my son even said to me, why are you listening to MUSE? Great choice.

  14. Hi Laurel🌸 Will look fwd to Pt. 2 😉. I used to use Lightroom heavily for photo editing, so I know how LONG it takes to put up very nice photos…. so I’m mentioning this in case you haven’t tried the remove objects ( ie people) editing that comes on your phone. Sometimes waiting for people to leave works, sometimes it takes too long, and still there might be a person coming along. I have a Pixel Android, and this has it — I’m sure the iPhone must have something similar built in too!?

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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