I was stopped at a red light on State Street when my son asked me, “Mom, why does that building have a lion and a unicorn on it?” My profession requires me to look at buildings all the time, but I was struck that I had never asked this question myself. Perhaps I am usually too focused on modern details like the cladding and glazing of the skyscrapers pictured behind what he was asking about.
The building we were stopped in front of is the Old State House built to serve the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Constructed in 1713, it is the oldest public building still standing in Boston. It has been a mercantile, political, legislative, and judicial gathering place, but the lion and unicorn—both British royal symbols—have an equally deep history.
The gilded lion and silvered unicorn match the two figures prominent in Great Britain’s Royal Coat of Arms—a clear symbol of royal authority during colonial rule of Boston. (The Lion of Great Britain dates back over 800 years to King Richard I, the Lionhearted, and the Unicorn of Scotland is their national animal.) The lion and unicorn were not original to the State House—appearing on the East side of the building around 1747 facing what was then known as King Street. They were dramatically taken down at the beginning of the American Revolution on July 18, 1776 by colonists and burned in a great fire in Dock Square. In 1882 after over a century of independence, the lion and unicorn were restored to their original and current perch on the East Side to the renamed State Street during a renovation of the building.
[pullright]“Mom, why does that building have a lion and a unicorn on it?”[/pullright]
I was struck by my son’s question hearing the delight in his voice as he noticed these details in his environment. It reminds me that architecture is a lens to uncovering great history—especially in a city like Boston. It seems as if here, there is a story for every building. But I know history is not unique to our city; it can be found anywhere. Our personal stories of where we live, where we work, how we gather are intertwined with buildings and can become just as powerful as any other narrative—even revolutions.
My son’s casual inquisitiveness reminded me that I need to look around more and create a dialogue, both individually and as a family, about the environment around us. How does our city define what we value as a culture? How do we celebrate and construct our legacies in a city? It also reminds me, as an architect, that buildings ultimately belong to the people who use them, creating their own stories and questions.
All of this while waiting for red light in downtown Boston.