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History of Early American Landscape Design

Bunker Hill Monument

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The Bunker Hill Monument in Charleston, Massachusetts commemorates a pivotal early battle in the American war for independence. It is the first colossal obelisk erected in the United States. [1]


Alternate Names:

Site Dates: 1826-1842

Site Designer(s): Robert Mills; Horatio Greenough; Solomon Willard

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The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775 on and around Breed’s Hill during the Siege of Boston. Nineteen years later, an 18-foot Tuscan pillar surmounted by a gilt urn was erected in memory of Dr. Joseph Warren (1741-1775), a hero of the battle, by the members of his Masonic Lodge. In 1823 a group of prominent Massachusetts citizens formed the Bunker Hill Monument Association for the purpose of creating a more ambitious memorial commensurate with the battle’s national importance. The Association envisioned “a simple, majestic, lofty, and permanent monument, which shall carry down to remote ages a testimony…to the heroic virtue and courage of those men who began and achieved the independence of their country.” [2] In order to protect the battlefield from encroaching development as the local population grew, the Association’s standing committee purchased 15 acres on the slope of Breed’s Hill and authorized Solomon Willard, a stone worker and builder, to draw the plan for a 221-foot column.

The committee subsequently changed course, opening a design competition in 1825 which attracted 50 entries. Although a column had been specified, a variety of alternative forms were submitted. Robert Mills, an architect who had previously designed the Washington Monument in Baltimore, submitted plans for a column as well as an obelisk, expressing his preference for the latter due to its “lofty character, great strength, and…fine surface for inscriptions.” [3] Along with inscriptions, the monument was to be ornamented with numerous decorative devices — shields, stars, spears, and wreaths — which could be viewed from a series of platforms around the base and shaft of the obelisk. Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), a student at Harvard University who went on to become a noted sculptor, also submitted a design for an obelisk. In his memoirs, published in 1852, Greenough observed: “The obelisk has to my eye a singular aptitude, in its form and character, to call attention to a spot memorable in history. It says but one word, but it speaks loud. If I understand its voice, it says, Here! It says no more.” [4]

Following extensive debate over the architectural form best suited to communicate the heroic, memorial, and patriotic themes of the monument, the committee determined that the obelisk was “most congenial to republican institutions.” [5] Willard received the commission to construct the monument, which he originally designed with an Egyptian Revival base. Lack of funds required simplification of Willard's design and the selling of most of the land purchased by the Association. Only the summit of the hill was preserved for the monument grounds. [6] Landscape improvements carried out between 1842 and 1847 included grading, planting trees and hedges, laying sidewalks, and installing iron fences. [7]

--Robyn Asleson



  • Greenough, Horatio, c. 1851, "The Washington Monument," quoted in Tuckerman 1853: 82, [8]
82 "The obelisk has to my eye a singular aptitude, in its form and character, to call attention to a spot memorable in history. It says but one word, but it speaks loud. If I understand its voice, it says, Here! It says no more. For this reason it was that I designed an obelisk for Bunker Hill, and urged arguments that appeared to me unanswerable against a column standing alone.....
"The column used as a form of monument has two advantages. First, it is a beautiful object — confessedly so. Secondly, it requires no study or thought; the formula being ready made to our hands.
"I object, as regards the first of these advantages, that the beauty of a column, perfect as it is, is a relative beauty, and arises from its adaptation to the foundation on which it rests, and to the entablature which it is organized to sustain. The spread of the upper member of the capital calls for the entablature, cries aloud for it. The absence of that burden is expressive either of incompleteness, if the object be fresh and new, or of ruin if it bear the marks of age. The column is, therefore, essentially fractional — a capital defect in a monument, which should always be independent. I object to the second advantage as being one only to the ignorant and incapable. I hold the chief value of a monument to be this, that it affords opportunity for feeling, thought, and study, and that it not only occasions these in the architect, but also in the beholder."



  1. John Zukowsky, "Monumental American Obelisks: Centennial Vistas," The Art Bulletin, 58 (December 1976): 574, view on Zotero.
  2. George Washington Warren, The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association (Boston, Mass.: James R. Osgood, 1877), 47, view on Zotero; see also Purcell, 195-99.
  3. Bryan, 2001, 204; Scott 1989, 133.
  4. Henry T. Tuckerman, A Memorial of Horatio Greenough, Consisting of a Memoir, Selections from His Writings, and Tributes to His Genius (New York: G. P. Putnam & Co., 1853), 82, view on Zotero.
  5. Purcell, 2010, 199-200; see also Wright, 1953, 167-71
  6. Wheildon, 1865, 58-224; see also Willard, 1843
  7. Heitert, 2009, 38-39
  8. Tuckerman, 1853, view on Zotero.



Bunker Hill website (National Park Service): http://www.nps.gov/bost/historyculture/bhm.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bunker_Hill_Monument

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History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Bunker Hill Monument," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Bunker_Hill_Monument&oldid=7267 (accessed February 8, 2023).

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