With the Massachusetts Presidential primary election coming up soon, it seems like a good time to talk about the political animals in Bostons’ bronze menagerie.
Massachusetts voters, historically, vote Democratic and that party is represented by a donkey. This symbol was first established in 1837 by Andrew Jackson, who founded the party. His opponents called him a “jackass” for his slogan, “Let the people rule.” President Jackson appropriated the donkey as the symbol for his party and it was popularized decades later by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
In a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, Boston’s Democratic donkey stands in the courtyard of Old City Hall on School Street. He’s life size, an Italian immigrant like many Bostonians, and a bit skinny.
The Democratic Donkey
Our bronze donkey was created by Antonio Frilli and started life in Florence, Italy. He was brought to Boston in 1968 by Roger Webb, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Architectural Heritage Foundation, after he saw the donkey in a Florentine collection of sculpture. Mr. Webb’s request to place the donkey somewhere on the Freedom Trail was initially rejected by Boston’s authorities. They could find no rationale for placing an “Italian donkey” in the city.
To overcome their objections, Mr. Webb developed an historical justification for the statue and the proposed location. He argued that Old City Hall stood on the original site of the Boston Latin School, the first public school in the United States. Many of its students probably rode donkeys to school. In addition, one of Boston Latin’s illustrious graduates was Benjamin Franklin and a statue of Mr. Franklin already stood in the courtyard. No dice: authorities denied his request a second time.
Undaunted, Mr. Webb did further research and argued that the Democratic Party had dominated Boston politics for over a century and many of the Democratic mayors had served in the Old City Hall from 1865 until 1969. Third time’s a charm and this argument was the winner. Although the authorities did not like an “Italian donkey,” they could approve a “Democratic donkey.”
Today the donkey is a very popular stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail as more than 500,000 visitors come to the courtyard each year. His well-polished back testifies to his popularity as a prop for photo opportunities. Children want to climb up for a ride and even adults sit on the donkey’s back.
If you are not a Democrat, you can “stand in opposition,” by fitting your shoes into a pair of bronze footprints on the pavement right in front of the donkey. Each one is marked with an elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, which was also popularized by Thomas Nast.
Boston’s Old City Hall
If you go to visit Boston’ Democratic Donkey, pay attention to the Old City Hall behind him. It’s an ornamental building created by Arthur T. Gilman and Gridley J. Fox Bryant from 1862 to 1865. The French Second Empire style of architecture was popular in France at this time, during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. In this building the architects introduced it to both Boston and the United States. The French Second Empire style became very popular and was later used for the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. as well as city halls in Providence, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
When creating this third iteration of Boston’s City Hall, Gilman and Bryant had the Louvre in mind, and wanted to make it this the “most elaborate and conspicuous” of the city’s new structures.
It is built of Concord granite with a central pavilion that is flanked by two wings. The structure is topped with a Mansard roof and a lantern dome. To call it ornate is almost an understatement. Old City Hall is decorated with a profusion of columns, pilasters, dentils, brackets and keystones that earned it the nickname of “Parisian wedding cake.”.
Old City Hall was renovated in 1969 by Anderson Notter Associates when the new City Hall by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles opened in Government Center. It now provides office and dining space.
The Democratic Donkey lives in the courtyard outside the Old City Hall and you can visit him at any time. Climb on his back, pat his nose, take a picture. He’ll be happy to see you no matter how you vote.
Old City Hall
45 School Street
Next Week: The Educated Elephant