MA State House Tours, Beacon Hill isn’t just for middle schoolers

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In the stillness there is an echo of distant footsteps, the indistinct murmur of soft conversation. Polished marble floors gleam, chandeliers hang heavily, their bulbs creating unobtrusive rainbows of refracted light in unassuming corners.

The Massachusetts State House, perched majestically on Beacon Hill, carries weight.

It exudes a sense of history, a gravitas. But while the murals and paintings, the statues and the collection of battlefield paints speak for its age, it’s no dusty old relic, long forgotten and unused.

On any given day, people gather outside to protest, march and demonstrate against current events to urge their lawmakers to approve a law, pass a measure, support a cause. The legislature meets by law every three days, even if it’s only for five minutes, for both formal and informal sessions.

The audience is welcomed, allowed to roam, can watch democracy in action from the gallery. Tourists from around the world step in to see for themselves one of the historical sites that helped shape the American experience; an experience that changed the world.

Well, not this structure.

The original State House housed the British colonial government between 1713 and 1798 and was tiny. At least according to Matt Landon, the May 16 faculty member who gave a tour (they’re free) to two graduate students, Audrey Hartis from North Carolina and Taylor Petrucci from Walpole (who admitted she may have missed the middle school field trip) . State House), a reporter, and an Italian couple who walked in off the street.

Lucky coincidence.

How do I book a State House Tour?

The State House is a public building open weekdays from 8:45 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; all are welcome. Guided tours are offered weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and last around 45 minutes. You start in Doric Hall.

The director suggests calling ahead, 617-727-3676 to make an appointment, however self-guided tours are allowed. Virtual tours are available through the website malegislature.gov/statehouse/tour and through the Office of the Secretary of State (William Gavin).

High school students interested in becoming summer lecturers can apply online through the website.

Taylor Petrucci of Walpole (foreground) and Audrey Hartis of South Carolina look at the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln that hangs in the Massachusetts State House.

Lecturers start the official tours behind the rarely used entrance doors. They are ceremonial in nature and open onto the Doric Hall and the steps leading to The Common. They open to allow for the return of regimental battlefield flags (about 400 to date), to greet visiting heads of state (President William Howard Taft when he threw the first pitch at Fenway), and to escort an outgoing governor down the steps and onto The Common on her last day in office.

The pillars were originally made of wood hewn from the Boston Common, but were replaced long ago due to fire concerns. A scale model of the original building is in the hall under glass.

It was tiny indeed: 65 feet by 120 feet, says Landon of the original building, but it once housed both the legislature and the executive branch. The current building, designed by American architect Charles Bulfinch, was originally twice the size and had a second floor. It has been added and enlarged over the centuries: the Charles Brigham Wing was added in 1895, and the East and West Wings were completed in 1917.

On display in the Memorial Hall: images of some of the more than 400 regiment colors that have returned from the battlefield;  and a mural depicting her return.

The signature gold dome (a thin layer of 23-karat gold leaf cost $300,000 to install in 1997) was originally made of wood. It leaked. It was covered with sheet copper, a task assigned to Paul Revere (yes, the same one). When the copper oxidized and turned green, gold leaf was the answer ($3,000 in 1874).

“The sheet gets reapplied every 20 to 30 years,” Landon said, indicating it’s coming soon.

What will I see at the State House?

The first piece of art in the State House is a romanticized statue of General George Washington, draped in a toga (à la Caesar) to symbolize democracy and governance.

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln shows him standing; a rare image as he was conscious of his size. It was completed 35 years after his death.

There is a statue of John A. Andrew (the state’s 25th governor), who formed the first black regiments in Massachusetts to fight for the Union in the Civil War. And a bust of the state’s first governor, John Hancock, who owned the land on which the State House was built and sold it to Massachusetts in 1793.

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A statue of William Francis Bartlett, a native of Haverhiller, takes pride of place. He dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Union Army, was wounded, lost a leg, reenlisted (eventually serving four tours of duty) and was promoted to brigadier general at age 24.

The Nurses Hall was renamed (from Senate Staircase Hall) to honor Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix and Louisa May Alcott (she served as a nurse during the Civil War and wrote “Hospital Sketches” about her experiences).

Murals depicting local history, from the Boston Tea Party to Paul Revere’s Ride, Return of Colors and the Battle of the Concord Bridge, adorn the walls. Stained glass ceilings depicting the seals of the original 13 states, rosettes symbolizing democracies from around the world: Holland, Iceland, Helvetia, Florence are backlit and splashing color.

Taylor Petrucci, 23, of Walpole, looks at the stained glass at the Massachusetts State House during an official tour of the building

The tour ends in the governor’s office, the reception area (complete with comfortable sofas and gifts for the governors) is lined with portraits of past leaders, each governor gets to choose one to hang in the sanctum. (Deval Patrick chose John Andrew.)

What other interesting things should I know about the State House?

The Senate Reading Room has a round table right in the middle, divided into 13 pieces like a cake; Each piece is a different size to represent the original 13 colonies.

When measuring distances from anywhere to the center of Boston; This center marker is under the gold dome of the State House.

The Senate and House swapped chambers, with the Senate taking over the space formerly occupied by the House. During the transition period, the Senate requested a sculpture to be hung in the House chambers, the “Holy Cod”, which was donated to the House by local fishermen to celebrate the importance of the Massachusetts fishing industry. The Senate envisioned that the sculpture would remain in the Senate Chambers.

Audrey Hartis, 23, visiting from South Carolina, toured the Massachusetts State House with her boyfriend, Taylor Petrussi, 23, from Walpole.

“The reps took the cod with them when they moved,” Landon said. Not to be dissuaded, the senators ordered their own cod, dubbed “holy mackerel.”

The government currently consists of 40 senators, 160 deputies. The number has changed over time: in the 19th century there were 400 representatives; 270 in the 1970s.

Don’t miss the “Hall” in the State House

The tour would not be complete without a stop at the Hall of Flags. The courtyard is a ceremonial space surrounded on all sides and has a glass ceiling. It was a tough room. It echoed.

To soften the reverberations and decorate the space, flags representing (almost) all 351 communities in Massachusetts were hung. Oh, just so we’re clear, the hanging clock, a work of art, also keeps time perfectly.

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Landon selects a few of them: the first is (of course) Plymouth, which was incorporated in 1620. The banners are hung in chronological order based on when each parish was incorporated. The last flag, a white banner, belongs to East Brookfield, which was founded in 1920. A computer monitor can help searchers locate specific flags and save them from neck pain.

“Some of these flags were designed specifically for this space,” Landon said.

The official tour concludes at Heroes Hall, dedicated to Massachusetts women who helped shape the state. Lucy Stone: a feminist and abolitionist, was the first woman to graduate from college (Oberlin), Dorothea Dix, a mental health advocate, Florence Luscombe, an MIT architecture graduate, Mary Kenny O’Sullivan, a union organizer, among others.

“I really enjoyed the tour,” said Petrucci. “I would recommend it to everyone.”

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