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The politics of style: Building, builders, and the creation of federal Boston

Thomas E. Conroy, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the political, social, and aesthetic purposes that building and buildings served in the early American republic by exploring post-revolutionary politics, society, and architecture in a single community: Boston from 1783–1803. Its main chronological narrative traces the process by which younger members of the Federalist elite, frustrated with post-war developments that prevented them from claiming political and social power, came to remake the town in an English-influenced style and why other stylistic influences (especially those from France) were de-emphasized. The argument is that younger Federalists used building and buildings to gain hegemonic control of post-revolutionary politics and society, quell the radicalism of the American Revolution, and communicate their elite status in a supposedly classless society by fundamentally altering the physical and built environment of the early republic town. Rather than a celebration of revolutionary-era republicanism, then, the building projects undertaken by young Federalists were actually un-republican attempts to create visible distinctions between classes, bring voters into dependent relationships with them, and re-establish an elite-led political and social order that the American Revolution temporarily interrupted. Thus, it explores the ways in which architecture and building were embraced, eschewed, and harnessed in response to and in an effort to shape politics and society. Fusing political, social, and economic with architectural and building history, this study combines documentary and material culture evidence to contribute to an ongoing effort to use material culture to advance historical inquiry and reveal previously under-explored territory. Consequently, sources include traditional documentary sources as well as the most important buildings erected or enlarged in Boston between 1787 and 1807, including: the Hollis Street Meeting House, the Massachusetts State House, the houses of Harrison Gray Otis, India Wharf, Holy Cross Cathedral, the Tontine Crescent, and Faneuil Hall. While offering a new interpretation of post-revolutionary building, this study also offers a different view of Charles Bulfinch, Boston's first native architect, as it casts him not as the main agent of change to the post-revolutionary Boston built environment, but more as a dependent cog in a larger process that remade Boston in the first decades of the republic.

Subject Area

American history|American studies|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Conroy, Thomas E., "The politics of style: Building, builders, and the creation of federal Boston" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3163659.