Old State House and Unicorn — an Unfolding Story

By Donald J. Tellalian

BOSTON — The restoration process of an historic landmark so often yields surprising discoveries. Old newspapers and handwritten notes buried in walls, names and initials of workmen carved into timbers are some of the delights of discovery. This August, the anticipated restoration of the copper Lion and Unicorn, iconic figures gracing the top of the East Façade of Boston’s Old State House, may prompt such discoveries.

The Old State House, at the head of State Street, has offered a veritable odyssey of reincarnation. The building dates from 1713. Yet, as with so many long-lasting structures, over the past 300 years it has lent itself to changes in use and appearance: site of colonial government, then town hall, then state house, then physical reconfigurations to house commercial offices and retail establishments.

Since 2006, restoration/rehabilitation and retrofit efforts, commissioned by The Bostonian Society, have been ongoing. This year a key element of these initiatives will be the removal, inspection and restoration of the copper Lion and Unicorn. The originals, in polychrome wood, symbols of British rule, were removed and burned during the American Revolution. In 1882, when the building was restored to its “colonial appearance,” replacements were carved and installed. Again during a period of restoration/renovation, those two rotting wood figures were removed and a Boston coppersmith, Movses H. Gulesian, was commissioned in 1900 by the state to replace the wooden Lion and Unicorn with copper ones.

Gulesian himself has an intriguing history. Motivated by an almost utopian vision of America and fearful of the repression and dangers of late 19th-century Ottoman Turkey, he left his home and family in Marash at age 17 for a long and dangerous passage by way of Smyrna and Palermo, arriving in New York City in May 1883. He survived with a few Turkish coins in his pocket and slept on a park bench. After many days, he managed to connect with a fellow countryman who took him in to wind bobbins in a carpet shop. After seven months, somewhat overwhelmed by the pace of New York City, but with a growing proficiency with his new language and a sense of security in his newfound country, he left seeking continuation of his apprenticeship with copper and sheet ironwork in Worcester.

Ultimately the penniless, yet hardworking immigrant would seek citizenship, thrive and achieve fortune in late 19th-century Boston.

While personal security, substantial fortune and entrepreneurial opportunities were realized in Gulesian’s adopted country, his commitment to good works and philanthropy was not forgotten. He not only sponsored the immigration of his extended family, but sponsored, during the late 1890s, scores of refugees from Ottoman Turkey, giving many employment and transitional lodging in his Waltham factory building. His efforts in this regard encouraged a longstanding relationship with Mrs. Samuel Barrows, Clara Barton, Frances E. Willard, William Lloyd Garrison and aid organizations, including the United Friends of Armenia, the Red Cross and the World Christian Temperance Union.

To most who have heard of Movses Gulesian, he is remembered as the one who saved Old Ironsides. In December 1908, he had read in the daily paper that Charles J. Bonaparte, US Secretary of the Navy, considered the deteriorating ship one that was no longer needed and might possibly be towed out of Boston Harbor, used in target practice, ultimately to be scrapped.

Gulesian, grateful for the opportunities available in his adopted country, had become a passionate student of US history. To him, Old Ironsides was an icon, launched in Boston in 1797, built with the timbers of a Boston shipwright, gun carriages built in South Boston, sails made in Boston and copper bolts and spikes made by none other than Paul Revere.

His offer of $10,000, via telegram to Bonaparte, drew a prompt response that the US Navy had no authority to sell the ship, requiring Congressional action. The telegram was made public by the Navy Department through the Associated Press and thus an article in the Boston Evening Transcript. With that publicity, citizen and government petitions forced Congress to act — Old Ironsides would be saved.

Publicity and controversy were also to emerge regarding the authorized copper fabrication of the Lion and Unicorn. The Pilot, on June 28, 1902, referenced them as “Relics of Royalty,” reminding its readers that 125 years ago, in celebration of the National Birthday, the patriotic citizens of Boston tore down those reminders of British rule, “burning them, along with every sign that belonged to a Tory.” Yet in 1882, the Common Council of Boston had those “emblems of royalty” replaced. At “the dawn of another Fourth of July in Rebel Town,” the Pilot argued for their permanent removal.

In contrast, the Boston Transcript viewed the Lion and Unicorn as merely “orphaned emblems of British Sovereignty.” The Transcript’s position was that the replacement of the Lion and Unicorn was appropriate to the “completion of the old building as an antiquity.” Despite this degree of opinion and passion concerning another “replacement” with Gulesian’s new copper Lion and Unicorn, they were ultimately installed.

As footnote, the Superintendent of Public Buildings informed the Common Council as to what articles were deposited in a box placed inside the head of the Lion. So, we look forward not only to the restoration of the Lion and the Unicorn, but, as with that process of historic restoration often yielding surprising discoveries, to a search for that Box!

(This article originally appeared in On King Street, The Official Blog of the Bostonian Society in July 2014. Donald J. Tellalian, AIA, founding Principal of Tellalian Associates Architects & Planners, LLC, has led the preservation projects at the Old State House with the Bostonian Society since 2005.)