Inside Bulfinch's Masterpiece, the Massachusetts State House, an Office Building Pulses with Life

Friday, June 17, 2011

Beacon Hill was buzzing this week and last after word got out that the Speaker of the House was looking into an after-hours incident in the House chamber involving a young, single state representative and a female aide to another representative.

Supposedly, late on the night of April 28, after the House had wrapped up work on the new state budget, a security officer came upon the legislator and the aide, both of whom are in their twenties, in the deserted House chamber.

The chamber was locked at the time, but the pair apparently entered through a door in the Speaker's adjoining office, where a post-session, social gathering was underway.

How the incident (if it can be called that) came to light is not known outside the State House, but once it became general knowledge in the building, it inevitably seeped into the public realm. Before you knew it, tongues were wagging all over Boston.

And once the reporters started calling late last week, Speaker Robert DeLeo had no choice but to look into the matter and report publicly on what he found.

Tuesday of this week, DeLeo released a statement that his investigation had concluded that the rep and the aide had not violated any law, House rule, or House personnel policy, "and, most importantly, that there was no inappropriate behavior" by either party.

In the statement, DeLeo emphasized the unique place that the House chamber occupies in the affairs of the Commonwealth and made it clear that he expects legislators to act in a manner always befitting the history and grandeur of their surroundings.

"The House chamber belongs to the people of Massachusetts," he said. "It is a place where we make laws and conduct the people's business. It is a place where important occasions and addresses are marked by ceremony, and its traditions span much of the Bay State's a matter of policy, the chamber should be reserved for official business and ceremony only."

One reason to envy members of the legislature, I have always felt, is that they get to work in the Massachusetts State House, a magnificent structure designed by Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), a protege of Thomas Jefferson, the father of American architecture.

No matter how many times you've walked into the State House, you can't help but be impressed by its classical beauty, its perfect dimensions, and its overshadowing dignity whenever you come through the door and stride its portrait-bedecked hallways. It has the power literally to stop your thoughts or to change your mood.

The State House is drenched in history, but it is not frozen in time. You experience it simultaneously as you would a museum, an art gallery, a shrine, and an office building -- a building that shows a lot of wear in places and that has many more small and non-descript offices for back-benchers than palatial digs for committee chairmen.

Hundreds of people go to work at the State House every day and they do what people everywhere do at work. They eat their lunches at messy desks. They telephone their spouses and try to keep their voices low. They misplace things in file cabinets, which just happen to be pressed against ornate, ancient fireplaces.

This very combination of the incredibly special and the terribly ordinary gives the State House its unquestionable charisma. It has expanded in stages since the cornerstone was laid for Bulfinch's original structure on July 4, 1795, by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and it could never be duplicated.

You have to feel bad for that rep who became tabloid fodder and the object of an official investigation after being caught in the House chamber with a woman late at night. He was only doing what young people have always done after a lot of work and a little partying. Others have certainly stretched the bounds of acceptable behavior at the State House in greater ways through the years. Many others.

There was, for example, a trio of legislators, all fairly new to the House, who made their way to "the lantern" atop the building's golden dome on a July 4th night in the late-1970s.

Carrying a six-pack of beer, they moved stealthily to the fifth floor, made their way through the dark to a restricted area, ascended stairs as narrow and steep as a ladder, crawled over the wooden framework of the dome, forced open a hatch, and shimmied into the lantern. From that marvelous perch, they drank and enjoyed the fireworks shooting high into the sky above the Charles River Esplanade.

Security was lax at the State House in those days; these guys were never discovered, never reprimanded.

The very existence of "acceptable behavior" challenges humans to misbehave. Standards and expectations create a tension that often lends excitement, irresistibly so, to a prohibited act. Mr. Bulfinch lived in Paris when he was young and acquiring his wondrous skills, so he would no doubt understand such things. I do not think he would be offended by a kiss in the House chamber or a beer toast atop his iconic dome.

No comments:

Post a Comment