Frozen in time

first-time visitors to the Massachusetts House of Representatives are struck by its beauty and grandeur. The royal blue carpeting, the walls of rich, Honduran mahogany, and the massive electronic roll-call boards are striking. More distinctive are the Sacred Cod, the five murals by Albert Herter known collectively as “Milestones on the Road to Freedom,” and the plaque affixed to the speaker’s rostrum and emblazoned with the words of John F. Kennedy.

But one of the most profound features is also the least conspicuous. On the frieze circling the 68-by-86-foot chamber, painted fresco secco, are the last names of more than 50 individuals who made significant contributions to the state and union.

“It’s not the most prominent feature of the chamber,” says Steven James, who began working at the State House in 1964 and was elected clerk of the house in 1999. When spectators take a seat in the balcony, he says, “their eyes are immediately attracted to the murals. But once you get past their beauty and begin to look around, you see different things, and one of them is the frieze.”

Some of the names—like LONGFELLOW, HAWTHORNE, FRANKLIN, and COPLEY —are familiar, but CHOATE, DANE, BOWDITCH, and PUTNAM are unknown to all but the most serious students of Massachusetts and American history. There is, however, a way for the casually inquisitive to determine whose name is up there and why: Ask Chief Court Officer Raymond J. Amaru, keeper of the official list.

“I don’t know where we got it,” laughs Amaru, who has worked at the State House since 1959. “We don’t really take it out very often,” he says, except on the rare occasion when a legislator, staffer, or tourist inquires about a specific name. (See the complete list in the sidebar.)

The honorees were selected behind closed doors, without legislative input. Records in the state archives are limited, but we know that William Endicott Jr., clerk of the Massachusetts State House Construction Committee, wrote to Gov. Frederic Greenhalge and the executive council in 1894.

“Decoration” of the frieze, Endicott reported, presented “a suitable opportunity for commemorating the names of citizens who have rendered distinguished service to the Commonwealth.” If the governor and council approved, the committee members were prepared to “designate the names to be held in perpetual remembrance by successive legislatures.”

Consideration was given to simply “enumerating the successive governors of the Commonwealth,” but Endicott said they preferred not to confine the list to politicians and instead wished to include “sons of Massachusetts by birth or adoption, such as have attained especial eminence as statesmen, jurists, soldiers, scholars, preachers, merchants or scientific investigation.”

The commissioners’ correspondence was referred to a subcommittee chaired by Lt. Gov. Roger Wolcott, the list of names was agreed upon, and Frank Hill Smith, who was already being paid $10,000 to put the finishing touches on “the House Chamber decorations,” got to work on the frieze. The first names put up were Mayflower passengers John Carver and William Bradford.

All but two of the individuals are listed by surname only. The exceptions are JOHN ADAMSand J.Q. ADAMS. As the decision was made in secret, it’s impossible to be certain why this is so. The most likely explanation is simply that this distinguishes between the second and fifth presidents. But perhaps the reigning Republicans who chose the names also wanted to ensure that future generations knew they weren’t honoring Samuel Adams, the colonial rabble-rouser that former Gov. Michael Dukakis calls “the first Democrat”?

Each name was put on the frieze with a specific individual in mind, but apparently nobody cared if latter-day observers supposed that webster was not in memory of Daniel Webster but of Noah Webster, author of the first American English dictionary (and twice elected to the Massachusetts House, in 1815 and 1819).

When SUMNER was painted in tribute to abolitionist Charles Sumner, the commissioners evidently weren’t worried that someone might presume the honor belonged instead to Increase Sumner, the first governor to serve in the new State House. And quincy was put up there to honor Josiah Quincy, the great Federalist congressman and president of Harvard, though some might think it’s in memory of his similarly named father, who, alongside John Adams, defended the Redcoats accused in the Boston Massacre.

a century ago, these names were familiar to the general public; knowledge of their accomplishments or service was widespread. But if the list were compiled today, how many would be excluded because their fame had diminished? How many would be out because they are now considered politically incorrect?

Would Samuel F.B. Morse’s invention be eclipsed by those of Dr. An Wang? Would John Endecott, unabashedly anti-Catholic with a history of abusing Quakers, be precluded, notwithstanding his “especial eminence” as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony? Would clergy of any faith be given recognition today?

It’s safe to assume that a new list would include women, Irish, Italians, and people of color. As it stands now, the frieze honors 53 dead white men. If you gave the entire list a modern-day review, how many would fail to make the cut, and who would be chosen to replace them?

James and Amaru, with 90 years of State House service between them, may have spent more time in the chamber than anyone else on Beacon Hill, and they’ve been looking up at the frieze for decades. Both agree the absence of people of color is glaring, but Amaru has plenty of suggestions. “I would say Crispus Attucks,” he says, referring to the former slave killed in the Boston Massacre. “He never served in the legislature, but I think of a person like him or Ed Brooke” (the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction).

As far as women are concerned, James wonders if Evelyn Murphy, the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor, could go up there. But Amaru scoffs at my suggestion that Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court and author of the decision that legalized gay marriage, is worthy of the honor. “She’s a newcomer,” he says. “She was born in South Africa.” He’s reminded the original criterion was those from Massachusetts “by birth or adoption,” and that Louis Agassiz was born in Switzerland and Alexander Graham Bell in Scotland, but Amaru refuses to back down. “Why would she be up there? Because she’s the first woman supreme court chief justice? I’d rather see Justice [Louis] Brandeis,” the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice.

For women, Amaru suggests poet Emily Dickinson and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, or Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. “That’s probably who we want up there.”

When it comes to literary figures, James offers up the name of Lowell’s Jack Kerouac.

“What about Bill Cosby?” he adds. “He graduated from UMass; if he’d call anyplace home, it would be Massachusetts.”

James Naismith, who invented basketball in Springfield in 1891, and legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler are two of the clerk’s other suggestions. Both he and Amaru agree that John F. Kennedy and Tip O’Neill would earn a spot on the frieze, but that Michael Dukakis might not. James describes the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee as “a little controversial in the eyes of some.” Amaru, too, is ambivalent. “That’s kind of iffy,” he says, “but that’s my opinion.”

Amaru disagrees with the premise that a number of names would need to be removed in order to accommodate their suggestions. “You’re not going to take names down,” he says. “That would ruin a historical part of the chamber. You have to make a new level, a new ring.”

James comes to the same conclusion, but only after he is asked if actor Leonard Nimoy should be honored, along with children’s author Dr. Seuss. “How big is this frieze going to be?” he wonders.

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“Too bad we couldn’t get Al Gore up there for inventing the Internet,” James laughs, referring to a popular misquotation attributed to the former vice president. “But we can’t link him to Massachusetts.” When he, too, is informed that as a former Harvard student Gore qualifies, with a stretch, under “birth or adoption,” James decides he’s heard enough. “Where do you draw the line on these?”

This might be as good a place as any.