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Opinion | Keith Lockhart

Where it all really began

The Old State House, a symbol of the path to independence, needs a facelift

The Old State House, which celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, is undergoing an interior restoration.istockphoto/Juan Silva

When I was a young child, my parents loaded up the car with my brother and me, and made the pilgrimage to Boston to see the sights and to teach us about our nation’s struggle for independence. I remember standing on the deck of the USS Constitution, looking up into the rigging, and almost being able to see the brave men and great deeds that I had previously only read about in books. I was enthralled, and now — having lived here for almost two decades — I am aware more than ever of the intoxicating spirit of history that permeates the air around us. That tangible sense of the past is one of the things that makes Boston such a rich and rewarding place in which to live. Boston’s symbolic importance to all Americans and the determined spirit of our citizens were brought forth to the world by the recent tragic events of Patriots Day.

To the visitor, one of Boston’s most impressive aspects is our rich legacy of historic sites from the Revolutionary era, many of which — like Faneuil Hall, the Old North Church, and Bunker Hill — are familiar to any school child. These irreplaceable assets have largely survived the ravages of time, and are open to all as living lessons in American history. Yet one small building, frequently overlooked, stands out as a symbol of the path to independence — the Old State House, a tiny jewel box on State Street that was the New England headquarters of the British Empire for more than 60 years.


The Old State House was the seat of the Royal Governor’s Council, but also of the popularly elected Massachusetts Assembly, and it was the scene of the earliest and most serious challenges to British authority. Its chambers still resonate with the passionate voices of Sam Adams, James Otis, John Adams, and John Hancock, arguing for freedoms that would form the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence. The Boston Massacre took place on its doorstep, and Paul Revere’s searing engraving of the event became a call to armed action.

The Old State House is the oldest surviving public building in Boston, and celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. It is owned by the City of Boston, and cared for by the Bostonian Society.

In celebration of the building’s tercentenary, the Bostonian Society is undertaking a major restoration of the Old State House’s interior, so that future visitors will be able to take away a vivid impression of what the building was like in the years leading up to the American Revolution. A successful restoration of the building will not only make the Old State House a focal point on the Freedom Trail, but also encourage broader recognition of Boston’s revolutionary past. Indeed, the proper role of the Old State House as the interpretive center for the entire Freedom Trail could at last be realized.


For the past several years, Philadelphia has usurped Boston’s role, claiming to be the place “Where It All Began.” With all due respect, Independence Hall is not where it all began — it’s where it all ended. They did the paperwork in Philadelphia, while Boston patriots hammered out the ideas, conducted the debates, and staged a resistance paid for with their own blood. Philadelphia has managed to do something, however, that we have not; a coalition of city, state, and federal officials, with the backing of Philadelphia’s civic leadership, has come together in a well-funded effort to preserve their city’s revolutionary history.

My goal is to help build a coordinated effort among business, civic, and political leadership here in Boston to ensure the success of the Old State House restoration and inspire a comprehensive approach to managing and promoting our city’s historical treasures. A modest initial investment of $5 million would have significant impact and would start us in the direction of a serious commitment to our historical and cultural tourism infrastructure, which has been woefully underfunded in recent years.

Such an investment and effort would yield rich dividends in increased tourism dollars. Perhaps more important is the impact it would have on civic education for our nation’s young people and adults alike. Almost 250 years ago, a revolution began in Massachusetts that changed the world. Those of us who live in 21st-century Boston are the guardians of that rich historical legacy. That legacy has much to teach us and future generations, and it is our civic responsibility to preserve it.


Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart is honorary cochair of the Old State House 300th Committee.