Massachusetts Statehouse tour offers little-known state history and beautiful architecture

The Massachusetts Statehouse sits on 6.7 acres of land on Beacon Hill, Boston Mass. Oct. 25, 2019. Photo by Naa Dedei Coleman/ BU News Service

By Naa Dedei Coleman
BU News Service

BOSTON — In 1933, the theft of a four-foot eleven-inch wooden codfish shut down the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Students from the Harvard Lampoon, an undergraduate humor magazine, stole the fish as a prank. Supposedly, the pranksters returned the fish discreetly, and their identities are still unknown.

Today, that codfish, the third incarnation of the “sacred cod,” hangs in a place of honor in the House cabinet and overlooks all the decisions made in that room.

The “codnapping” is one of the lesser-known Massachusetts stories that visitors can hear at the Massachusetts Statehouse. The building is still easily accessible years after the theft, allowing citizens to move in an out freely, but the codfish now hangs at least a foot higher from the ceiling to deter would-be kidnappers, and technological advances protect it from abduction.

“Some people find that strange,” said Gabriel Rosenthal, a tour guide at the Statehouse, on how easy it is to enter the Statehouse. “But this building — and we take a very particular point of pride in this — must be accessible as much as possible to the public.”

Clad in a blue striped long sleeve shirt and khaki pants, Rosenthal led a group of about a dozen tourists from different places in America, including Washington state and Atlanta, on an afternoon tour around the building. Rosenthal said some days he leads nearly a dozen tours.

The building, a red brick building with white trim topped by a golden dome that represents both the legislative and executive branches of the Massachusetts government, stands adjacent to the Boston Common.

“It’s the seat of government and we run the government out of this big beautiful, gorgeous building. And people don’t think to come here because all they think, ‘Oh, this is a boring office building filled with cubicles and lack of any hope whatsoever,’” said Rosenthal.

It sits on 6.7 acres of land on Beacon Hill, behind a black fenced gate, facing the Common, which once served as a training ground for the military. The property originally belonged to John Hancock, the first governor of Massachusetts and one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Although there are wide doors at the top of gray stairs at the front of the building, visitors and workers use a more discreet entrance on the right side of the building, guarded by an equestrian statue of General Joseph Hooker from 1903.

The tour, which covers the second and third floors of the building, starts outside Doric Hall, where a miniature of the building stands in a corner encased in glass. It is here that guides provide the history of the original building, including its original size and the future additions made to the Statehouse. For instance, the dome was initially painted gray and was first gilded with copper in 1802 by Paul Revere after it started to leak. It was only painted gold in 1874 and the gold is still thinner than a piece of paper, Rosenthal said.

The second-floor rooms are mostly commemorative, standing as testaments to important events and people that have shaped the history of the state.

Doric Hall is one of the oldest parts of the building, and is named after the ten Doric pillars, a Greek architectural style, that define the room. Blending into the white theme of the room is a marble sculpture of George Washington in a toga and holding a piece of parchment. As Rosenthal tells it, the statue caused quite an uproar when it was finished in 1826.

“The idea behind the statute was to dress Washington like an ancient Roman senator. A lot of people felt the statue was inappropriate, and some wanted to take them down. Others wanted it destroyed and we didn’t want that to happen here,” he said. He then added that the sculptor was invited to explain to the press that Washington was wrapped in an army blanket and was holding war plans.

On the same floor are other rooms like Memorial Hall and Nurses Hall. The rooms flow into each other, so it is easy to navigate them on your own, but some stories like that of the “codnapping” would only be heard from guides.

Nurses Hall is a marble room commemorating the nurses who treated wounded soldiers during the Civil War. In the hall is a sculpture of a nurse cradling a wounded soldier. On the wall are three paintings that show Revere’s midnight ride, the Boston Tea Party and the origin of the Fourth Amendment.

Memorial Hall is also lined in marble, although different shades from Nurses Hall. The stained glass window on the roof has 13 seals, with the current seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the center, surrounded by 12 seals from the original states of the Republic.

The third-floor rooms are more focused on the politics of these days, unlike the second floor, with halls that mostly commemorate past events in Massachusetts history.

The chamber for the House of Representatives is large enough to comfortably seat the 160 people who converge there every three days. The seats face forward, towards the speaker and a board that lights up with the votes for each piece of legislation. Above the speaker’s chair are paintings that mark crucial political moments in Massachusetts history, including the drafting of the Constitution, John Hancock proposing an addition to the Bill of Rights and the revolt against a British governor.

The Senate room lies below the golden dome that characterizes the building. Right underneath the dome is another codfish, dubbed the “Holy Mackerel.” Gray bricks line the walls of the room, with small nooks that hold busts of historical figures, including Frederick Douglass. Seats are positioned circularly, facing a wooden podium situated under the carved seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The entire Statehouse does well to remind visitors of Massachusetts’ role in the birth and development of what is now the United States. It serves as a reminder of both good and bad times, from seals that captured the offensive imagery of how the settlers had pictured Native Americans, to flags that were carried during the war to prevent soldiers from shooting their people.

Visitors come from all over the world, but usually tend to be in-state because of the proximity, Rosenthal said. The number of visitors fluctuates. “It depends on the month, like May and June and December are incredibly busy and sometimes like February, no one wants to come here because no one wants to be outside in February,” he added.

That afternoon’s group included Arlene Cornwall and Nancy Moody, on their first visit to the state from Seattle. Cornwall and Moody said they were drawn to the tour by the history and architecture of the building. At the end of the tour, they were impressed.

“I loved all the little stories. Yeah, the anecdotes about the fish and everything like that, that we never knew,” said Cornwall. “And the architecture, the mixture of the old and the new.”

The tour also raised questions among members of group on how different state legislatures work. Rosenthal mentioned that the reasoning behind each state’s rules was to ensure that politicians could make it to each State House without having to deal with harsh weather conditions. As a smaller state, Massachusetts legislators could make the journey in a short time, which explained the year round session when other states such as Texas do not.

Moody found the difference between the Massachusetts Legislature and that of her home state appealing. “It’s entirely run differently than it is in our home state. I thought that maybe they all kind of were the same, I’ve never heard of in our legislature meeting two days a week,” Moody added.

Although the building plays a huge role in the management of Massachusetts and commemorates it quite well, it does not look like other offices. Rather than cubicles, it has architectural aspects that make it more than a regular government building.

Rosenthal remembers being fascinated by the amount of marble in the building when he started leading tours in the State House. “It was this weird contradiction just how spectacular it looked without being too overbearing like it was supposed to overawe you but not too overbearing. I found it hit a really interested balance.”

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