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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



"The spot itself on which this memorable action took place, is extremely favorable for becoming the site of a monumental structure. Competent judges have pronounced the heights of Charlestown to excel any spot on our coast, in their adaptation to the object in view.... An elevated monument on this spot would be the first landmark of the mariner in his approach to our harbor; while the whole neighboring country,... with their rich fields, villages and spires; the buildings of the University, the bridges, the numerous ornamental country seats and improved plantations, the whole bounded by a distant line of hills and farming landscape which cannot be surpassed in variety and beauty, would be spread out as in a picture, to the eye of the spectator on the summit of the proposed structure.

11 Nor are these the only natural advantages of the spot. Though essentially rural in many of its features, it rises above one of our most flourishing towns, the seat of several important national establishments, where the noble ships of war of the American Republic seem to guard the approach to the spot where her first martyrs fought and bled. Its immediate vicinity to Boston, and its convenient distance from Salem, makes the ac cess to it direct from the centres of our most numerous, wealthy and active populations, and will be the means of keeping contin-


ually in sight, or bringing frequently to view, to the great masses of the community, the imposing memorial of an event which ought never to be absent from their memory, as its effects are daily and hourly brought home to the business and bosoms of every American citizen." " In forming an estimate of the cost of the structure proposed, a single eye has been had to the principle which dictates its erec- tion. Everything separated from the idea of substantial strength and severe taste has been discarded, as foreign from the grave and serious character both of the men and events to be commem- orated. With this principle in view, it has been ascertained that a monumental column, of a classic model, with an elevation to make it the most lofty in the world, may be erected of our fine Chelmsford granite, for about thirty-seven thousand dollars."*

" The general propriety and expediency of erecting public monuments of the kind proposed are acknowledged by all. They form not only the most conspicuous ornaments with which we can adorn our towns and high places, but they are the best proof we can exhibit to strangers, that our sensibility is strong and animated toward those great achievements and greater char- acters, to which we owe all our national blessings. There surely is not one among us who would not experience a strong satisfac- tion in conducting a stranger to the foot of a monumental struc- ture, rising in decent majesty on this memorable spot. It is a becoming expression of this sentiment to honor, in every way, the memories and characters of our fathers ; to adorn a spot where their noble blood was spilt, and not surrender it uncared-for to the plough. Years, it is to be remembered, are rapidly passing away ; and the glorious tra- ditions of our national emancipation which we received from them, will descend more faintly to our successors. The patriotic sentiment, which binds us together more strongly than compacts or constitutions, will if permitted, grow cold from mere lapse of time. We owe these monuments, therefore, not less to the char- acter of our posterity, than to the memory of our fathers. These events must not lose their interest. Our children and our chil- dren's children have a right to these feelings, cherished and kept by a worthy transmission. It is the order of nature that the generation to achieve nobly should be succeeded by a generation worthily to record and gratefully to commemorate. We are not called to the fire and the sword ; to meet the appaling array of armies, to taste the bitter cup of imperial wrath and vengeance proffered to an ill-provided land. We are chosen for the easier, more grateful, but not less bounden duty of commemorating and honoring the labors, sacrifices and sufferings of the great men of those dark times.

" There is one point of view, in which we seem to be strongly called upon to engage in the erection of works like that proposed. The beautiful and noble arts of design and architecture have hitherto been engaged in arbitrary and despotic service. The Pyramids and Obelisks of Egypt ; the monumental columns of Trajan and Aurelius, have paid no tribute to the rights and feel- ings of man. Majestic and graceful as they are, they have no record but that of sovereignty, sometimes cruel and tyrannical, and sometimes mild : but never that of a great, enlightened and


generous people. Providence, which has given us the senses to observe, the taste to admire, and the skill to execute, these beau- tiful works of art, cannot have intended that, in a flourishing nation of freemen, there should be no scope for their erection. Our fellow-citizens of Baltimore have set us a noble example of redeeming the arts to the cause of free institutions, in the impos- ing monument they have erected to the memory of those who fell in defending their city. If we cannot be the first to set up a structure of this character, let us not be other than the first to improve upon the example ; to arrest and fix the feelings of our generation on the important events of an earlier and more mo- mentous struggle, and to redeem the pledge of gratitude to the high-souled heroes of that trying day."

"In the designs for the monument which I now have the honor to lay before you, I would recommend the adoption of the Obelisk form in preference to the Column. The details I have affixed to this species of pillar will be found to give it a peculiarly interesting character, embracing originality of effect with simplicity of design, economy in execution, great solidity and capacity for decoration, reaching the highest degree of splendor consistent with good taste.
"The Obelisk form is, for monuments, of greater antiquity than the Column, as appears from history, being used as early as the days of Rameses, King of Egypt, in the time of the Trojan War....
"The Obelisk form is peculiarly adapted to commemorate great transactions, for its lofty character, great strength, and furnishing a fine surface for inscriptions. There is a degree of lightness and beauty in it that affords a finer relief to the eye than can be obtained in the regular proportioned column."

"I have made another slight sketch of the obelisk you suggested. I have supposed that the monument would be enclosed by an iron fence and have sketched the frustums of pyramids, in the Egyptian style, at the angles, which may serve as accompaniments and also for a lodge, watch house, &c. The obelisk and base is as sketched before, with the addition of a broad platform and a subterranean entrance.

" It has always seemed to me that any of the three figures which have been proposed, if well designed, would make a respectable monument. The obelisk I have always preferred for its severe cast and its nearer approach to the simplicity of nature than the others. The column might be more splendid. The character of the obelisk, without a pedestal, seems to me to be strictly appropriate for the occasion and I think would rank first as a specimen of art and be highly creditable to the taste of the age."

  • __, Robert Mills, 88-
"When the Bunker Hill Monument committee advertised for designs for the monument, I took a good deal of pains to study one which

should do honor to the memory of those worthies it was intended to commemorate, and prove an ornament to the city which it was to overlook. I went into some detail on the subject of monuments generally, and in sending them two designs, I recommended in strong terms the adoption of the Obelisk design, not only from its combining simplicity and economy with grandeur, but as there was already a column of massy proportions erected in Baltimore, we ought not, therefore, to repeat this figure, but construct one of equally imposing figure. I was then residing in South Carolina, and was at much trouble to forward the roll of drawings to their place of destination. I never heard anything on the subject of these drawings until it was announced that the committee had adopted the Obelisk form for the Bunker Hill Monument, and I was left to conjecture what part of my design was taken and what left, until some time after, when I saw that all the decorations were omitted, and the naked pillar preserved in all its original proportions. (By the way, I would observe that the committee have erred in omitting the simple decorations proposed in my design; the grand gallery about one-third the height of the shaft would have been useful as a lookout platform as well as presenting an appropriate decoration, as the outline of the gallery showed the monumental character used by the Egyptians, from which nation originated the obelisk form.)

" From the obelisk design being adopted, and my having recommended this form to them, I thought it was a courtesy due from the gentlemen to have dropped me a line of thanks for the trouble I had taken in the business, though they may have not awarded me the premium, as they may have made a design themselves, and simplified that sent, which however does not obliterate the idea. I would ask the favor of you, my dear sir, to see or inquire of any gentleman of the committee if there was any other design of the obelisk form presented for adoption to the committee with mine, and where this design came from, and if such design was offered, whether it was not made in Boston, or neighborhood, and if so, should not some credit be given to me at the distance I was, for suggesting the same idea? The design now carrying into execution bears all the proportions of that I sent them, and I ought reasonably to infer that some reference must have been had to my drawings. If the committee are not disposed to award me any credit for my design, I would thank you to procure my drawings, and when you have an opportunity forward them to me. The drawings were on a large scale and finished in oil colors, with a distant view of Boston in the back-ground

  • 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 Sarah J. Purcell, Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 195-99, view on Zotero.
  3. John M. Bryan, Robert Mills: America’s First Architect (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 204, view on Zotero; Pamela Scott, "Robert Mills and American Monuments," in Robert Mills, Architect, ed. John M. Bryan (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989), 133, view on Zotero.
  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 Nathalia Wright, "The Monument That Jonathan Built," American Quarterly Observer, 5 (1953): 167-71, view on Zotero.
  6. William W. Wheildon, Memoir of Solomon Willard, Architect and Superintendent of the Bunker Hill Monument (Boston, Mass.: The Monument Association, 1865), 58-224, view on Zotero; see also Solomon Willard, Plans and Sections of the Obelisk on Bunker’s Hill, with the Details of Experiments Made in Quarrying the Granite (Boston, Mass.: Charles Cook, 1843), view on Zotero.
  7. Kristen Heitert, Archeological Overview and Assessment of Bunker Hill Monument, Charlestown, Massachusetts, Submitted to the Northeast Region Archeology Program National Park Service, Public Archeology Laboratory (PAL), January 2009, 38-39, view on Zotero.
  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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