Old City Hall was designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant & Arthur Gilman and was constructed between 1862 and 1865.
Boston's Old City Hall was one of the first buildings in the French Second Empire Style to be built in the United States and is now one of the few that survive. The design originated in France during the Second Empire (the reign of Emperor Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870). In Paris, this style gained popularity with the building of the new Louvre. After the completion of Boston's City Hall (1865), the French Second Empire Style was used extensively elsewhere in Boston and for many public buildings in the United States, such as the Executive Office Building in Washington D.C. as well as other city halls in Providence, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The style became so closely associated with the Grant Administration (1869-1877) that it was also called the "General Grant Style." The major characteristic of this style is the mansard roof, a double-pitched roof with a steep lower slope that has a boxy shape. Often the building will have a projecting center that is topped by a dome, and tall windows and doors that are flanked by pairs of columns.
The location itself is significant in the history of the nation. The Boston Latin School (1635), Boston's first public school and the oldest educational institution in the country, stood here first. Some notable figures in history who attended this school include Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams.
In 1810, the Suffolk County Courthouse, designed by renowned architect Charles Bulfinch, was erected here. Remodeled by Gridlet J. F. Bryant, it served as City Hall from 1841 until the governing body outgrew the space in 1862. At that time, it was demolished. The basement of the Bulfinch building was retained for use as the foundation of the existing structure and the granite blocks were reused in the new exterior walls of the rear (Court Square) and east side (City Hall Avenue).
Fun Facts about Old city hall
Each year, Old City Hall's courtyard hosts more than 500,000 visitor
Preservationists believe our massive front doors were constructed from two different original pieces. The inner part, made from mahogany, is from the Federal Period - circa 1810 - and stood in the doorway of the courthouse-turned-city hall that once stood on this spot. The front of the doors are oak, and were added onto the original doors sometime in the last quarter of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the reasons for this peculiar construction have been lost to history.
The murals in the building entrances on School Street and Court Square illustrating the history of both the building and the site.
The marble plaque in the first floor lobby commemorating the laying of the cornerstone in 1862 by Mayor JM Wightman and the dedication of the building in 1865 by Mayor FW Lincoln, Jr.
Public Art at Old City Hall
Benjamin Franklin, 1856, Bronze, larger than Life Franklin was born in Boston and attended school on this site as a boy before pursuing a distinguished career as an author, inventor, scientist, politician and statesman. Scenes of Franklin's accomplishments appear in bas-relief on the square pedestal of the statue. The statue (1856) was the first portrait statue to be erected in Boston. Franklin is depicted as he would actually appear, rather than draped in toga, cloak, or classical attire. The statue was designed by Richard Saltonstall Greenough, as are two of the bas-reliefs.
Josiah Quincy, 1879, bronze, larger than life Quincy was the second Mayor of Boston and served six consecutive, one-year terms from 1823-1828. During his tenure he was reponsible for the development that expanded the produce and meat markets in Faneuil Hall into three new buildings known as the Quincy Markets. This statue (1879) was designed by Thomas Ball.
BOSTON: THE SHAPING OF A CITY, 1993 Designed by Joshua Winer Built in 1865 in elaborate Second Empire style, Old City Hall served the city until the development of Government Center in 1968. In rehabilitating the structure, the new owners were required by city fire codes to gut the interior. The mural on the wall facing the entrance was painted in 1984 by Winer and his original partner, Knoepffler. Along with fool-the-eye architectural detail, the names of Boston’s mayors are inscribed in typestyles reflecting the eras in which they served. The rest of the vestibule has been decorated by Winer and Voronina, a Russian-born artist trained at Leningrad Academy of Art.
CITY CARPET, 1983. Ceramic, brass, and stained concrete, 25’ sq. Designed by Lilli Ann Lillen Rosenberg Shaped like a hopscotch grid, this mosaic marks the original site of the Boston Latin School, the first public school in the US. The school educated many influential politicians and writers, including Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
BRONZE DONKEY, 1998. An Oral History of the Donkey as told by Roger Webb Traveling in Italy, I fell in love with a donkey. Almost every Italian city has outdoor statues -- historical, religious and sometimes beloved animals. These statues receive pats of affection from persons passing by and this leaves on the statue a shiny-reflective surface, evidence of their continuing strokes of connection. Florence of all Italian cities perhaps has the most outdoor statuary and is blessed with several ateliers that produce these statues in all sizes and shapes. I happened upon one of these shops in Florence years ago and wandered through their collections. My eye fell upon a life size donkey hidden behind a large statue of a hog and Michelangelo's David with a saintly woman kneeling in prayer. The donkey looked at me and we fell in love. I pictured this little donkey in Boston on The Freedom Trail -- perhaps in front of Old City Hall. I have always wanted a statue that would be particularly pleasing to children.
Purchasing the donkey and arranging its shipment to Boston was quickly negotiated. Upon my return I contacted the city authorities to notify them of my intended gift. Their response was cold. I was denied permission to proceed. "You can't just add an Italian donkey to The Freedom Trail.............. It just doesn't belong." "But the donkey is so lovable. The kids will be thrilled! Give me a week and we can work this out. You will love this donkey, too. Come see it."
Within a week I returned to this city authority with good news of the historical justification for the donkey and its intended location. Boston's Old City Hall sits on School Street and upon the site of the first public school in North America. One of its graduates was Ben Franklin. His statue stands in the courtyard. I surmised that Ben and other students rode their donkeys to school and tethered them in the school yard that is now the Old City Hall courtyard. Therefore, I argued a donkey statue in that location was historically appropriate. The request was denied -- again.
However, months later I remembered yet another significant historical fact. I returned to the city with my third request to place the donkey on The Freedom Trail in front of Old City Hall. Now I argued the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party and Boston's politics was dominated for over a century by Democrat mayors. They predominantly occupied Old City Hall on School Street from its construction in 1865 and until 1970 when they moved to the new Boston City Hall to govern Boston into the twenty-first century. After taking this into consideration the authorities determined our Italian donkey could become the "Democratic Donkey" in Boston and stand in front of Old City Hall, the bastion of Democrats for a century. I was given permission to proceed.
Years later in 2004 the Democratic Party gathered in Boston to select a candidate for the president of the United States. Many of their meetings and banquets occurred in Old City Hall's nationally famous restaurant Maison Robert. The delegates soon became friends with our donkey and the delegates officially designated our donkey their "Democratic Donkey". The donkey appears in many of their official photographs and literature.
Today our "Democratic Donkey" stands beloved by all on The Freedom Trail in front of Old City Hall. Almost every walker of The Freedom Trail stops for a picture and stands next to or sits on our donkey. Most children and even some grandparents climb up upon our donkey in a display of affection. My love for this little donkey has only increased. Now, our Italian immigrant donkey awaits your visit to Old City Hall on School Street -- standing in the shadows of Ben Franklin and Josiah Quincy -- as Boston's "Democratic Donkey”
“Stand in Opposition” BRONZE FOOTPRINTS, 2001.
Once the Donkey was in place, Old City Hall was inundated with “where’s the elephant” queries. It became something of an office joke to the point that they were given a stuffed elephant, so they would have an answer. Later, Roger had the idea of placing footprints with elephants in the center in a bronze plaque and putting it in opposition to the Donkey. To this day, it is still an iconic but abstract political statement of Republicans and Democrats in Boston.