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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

Colonials and Patriots
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service National Historic Landmark FANEUIL HALL
(part of Boston National Historical Park)

Location: Dock Square, Boston.

Ownership and Administration (1961). City of Boston, Real Property Department, City Hall Annex, Boston.

Significance. Often called "the Cradle of Liberty," Faneuil Hall was a focal point in the organization of colonial resentment and protest against acts of the British Parliament in the years immediately prior to the Revolution. Here James Otis, Samuel Adams, and other leaders of opposition to the Crown built colonial dissent into powerful sentiment for American self-government. Faneuil Hall heard the voices of the most notable leaders in the fight for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, and it remains today a significant symbol of the struggle for American freedom.

Faneuil Hall
Faneuil Hall. (National Park Service)

In 1740 a market house was offered to Boston by Peter Faneuil, "the topmost merchant in all the town." The question of fixed market places had long been debated, the countrymen favoring competition free, door-to-door peddling, and the city dwellers favoring a convenient central market. Faneuil's offer was accepted by a narrow margin, and on September 10, 1742, the building was completed. Perhaps to allay opposition to the market, Faneuil arranged for a long room above the marketplace to serve for town meetings and municipal purposes. The building was designed by John Smibert, a noted painter turned amateur architect for the project. Originally two stories high, 40 by 100 feet, the structure was Georgian in style, with open arcades to the public market on the ground floor. The large center cupola on the roof was topped by a famous weather vane, a huge grasshopper with green glass eyes and long antennae, turned out by Deacon Shem Drowne in May 1742. The hall was destroyed by fire on January 13, 1761, and only its brick walls were left standing. It was rebuilt and opened again in 1763, becoming for several years thereafter the scene of many of the public meetings that foreshadowed the Revolution. By 1768 the size of the protesting crowds often made adjournments to the Old South Meeting House necessary.

Faneuil Hall's great role in the Revolutionary movement had not ended, however, for in a town meeting there on November 2, 1772, Samuel Adams succeeded in creating the extralegal Committee of Correspondence, the first of the bodies that produced the union of the American Colonies. During the siege of Boston, the hall was used as a playhouse for amateur theatricals offered by British officers and Tory ladies in the town.

Present Appearance (1961). As Boston grew in the years following the Revolution, an enlargement of the hall and market became necessary. This was accomplished during 1805-6 in accordance with plans drawn by Boston's Charles Bulfinch. The building was tripled in size by increasing its original three bays to seven and adding a third story. The second-floor hall was thus expanded in area and in height, permitting the construction of galleries resting on Doric columns. Bulfinch moved the large cupola with the grasshopper weather vane to the east end, creating a more imposing effect. The attic of the enlarged building became the armory of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company.

The exterior of the original building had an applied order of brick pilasters in the Doric style, capped by a heavy entablature of stone at the eaves. Bulfinch retained the entablature and from it ran an order of Ionic brick pilasters up the new and higher third story. A series of barrel-shaped dormers was placed on the new roof, lighting the attic. The arched open arcades that had provided access to the market area on the first floor were filled in with windows corresponding to the arched windows of the second floor. Faneuil Hall ceased to be the scene of town meetings after Boston obtained a city charter in 1822, but remained a popular meeting place and forum during the 19th century. From 1827 until 1858 there was no market activity in the hall, the space being given over to eight stores occupied by vendors of drygoods and hardware. After 1858, when the market was restored, the space was appropriated by butchers, as it is today.

The great hall on the second floor displays a collection of paintings, many of the portraits being copies of originals that once hung there but that are now protected in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The attic is still the armory of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and contains a collection of military and other objects dating from the colonial period and afterward.

In 1898-99 the city of Boston reconstructed the hall, substituting iron, steel, and stone for wood, as far as practicable. In general, the Bulfinch plans were followed. Despite these efforts, the building is now considered substandard from the standpoint of safety. [19]

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Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005