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TREASURE HUNT

After 18 years in the Old State House by the harbor, Governor Sam Adams and prominent patriot Paul Revere laid the cornerstone for the new Beacon Hill building on July 4, 1795. Nearly three years later, on a frigid January morning, legislators moved into their new home — a 172-foot-wide, 65-foot-deep, 155-foot-high brick monument. The total cost for the project was $133,333.33 — a tribute to the original 13 colonies — which did not include the copper roof that Revere would pound four years later.

I learned all of that and more at the scene of the crime, on one of the free hour-long tours offered by the Secretary of State's office on weekdays. The tour is understandably limited to items that remain in the building. I was interested in things that aren't there — goods that are either in a safe deposit box or a dark basement overseas, or decaying in a landfill somewhere.

To dig deeper, I started by consulting the State House Guide Book, which was printed nine times — by order of the General Court — between 1901 and 1933. As it turns out, in 1845 the commonwealth sent an envoy to France to collect early colonial records, all of which would be stored — along with the King Charles charter — in the Secretary of State's office. Fifty years after that came the designation of Memorial Hall, which was initially filled with flags from the Civil and Spanish-American wars.

Around 1900, Governor John Brackett appointed someone to solicit contributions of portraits, with images of ex-governors as a priority. His successor, Governor Winthrop Murray Crane, went one step further, appropriating $12,000 for original paintings of all governors who had served since the adoption of the state constitution. It was also during Crane's tenure that the commonwealth began commissioning murals — a medium that trended nationally soon after. In guide books and literature, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has described the first decade of the 20th century as when the State House became an official "repository for fine arts." By 1910 there were more than 100 objects in the collection, spurring Governor Eben Draper to establish a state art commission of five qualified citizens.

Between the old guide books and my tour, my list of questions kept growing. If tradition strictly dictates who walks through the Bulfinch entrance in the front — US presidents, foreign heads of state, and governors on their first and last days — then why is the state so lax about thieves who sneak nostalgia out the back? I also wondered about the hundreds of flags that were once displayed in the Siena marble alcoves of Memorial Hall. I asked my guide why there were only one-dimensional facsimiles where so much pride used to hang, but she could only say that the flags were all removed in 1987, and are in safe keeping in the cellar. The only heists that came up, it seemed, were ones with happy endings.

'DUST AND DEHYDRATION'

Considering the ease with which college punks swiped the Sacred Cod in 1933, it came as little surprise in the 1940s when the state archives department discovered that roughly 400 documents from the 17th and 18th centuries were missing — the letters from Washington to Hancock; notes written by the likes of Ben Franklin and John Jay. Conditions were so shoddy that in 1950 a guest speaker on "Student Government Day" addressed the House and Senate in a joint session, and used his platform to attack the state's poor storage facilities. At the time, the archives were mostly contained in three offices on the fourth floor of the State House. The fourth stash was in the basement near the boiler room.

Back then, the state's storage spaces were dank and without ventilation or air conditioning. Landmark Indian treaties were stuffed in drawers at random; on the fourth floor, plaster peeled from the walls while bins and buckets filled with water during rainstorms. The only items kept in relative safety were the Massachusetts constitution and the King Charles charter — both were behind locked doors in heavy metal cabinets. Otherwise, according to a 1956 Christian Science Monitor exposé, "Three hundred years of recorded American history are here given very little protection from the relentless encroachments of time, dust, and dehydration."

Though already a public embarrassment, the decaying archives became humiliating front-page news in 1956, when two writers from the Boston Herald Traveler staged a heist to expose the state's vulnerability. During work hours, reporters Jack O'Shea and Henry Bosworth pocketed 11 documents worth a total of $23,000. They didn't wear masks or gloves, and they didn't even have to use the bogus credentials that they brought in case somebody tried to stop them. They simply signed into the building under false names, reached into the open cases, and walked off with the booty. They wouldn't be the last.

After years of historians campaigning for safer keeping, in 1960 the State House entered a major rehabilitation period, which included a somewhat secure new archive space in the basement. Though it would eventually prove to be inadequate, the bunker did mark an improvement from previous arrangements, especially for the cherished King Charles charter. Starting in 1961, that document was stored in a custom-built helium-filled bronze vault with a horizontal glass case; other heirlooms like the state constitution were given similar display treatments on the stone cellar walls.

Still, problems persisted, and in 1965 Joseph Coletti resigned as chairman of the Massachusetts Art Commission. An internationally renowned sculptor, Coletti publicly damned then-Governor John Volpe for curtailing the commission's powers. "Numerous paintings at the State House are deteriorating and have been neglected by bureaucratic inaction," Coletti told the Boston Globe. "The leaders of the commonwealth are unaware of the need for an art commission with expertise and integrity."

Things soon worsened. In 1968, there was a second Codnapping — this time by UMass-Boston students, in protest of their school moving to remote Columbia Point. The fish was found tucked behind a door in the House chamber three days later, but the negative press left a sting. Still, despite the outrage over the Codnapping among members, no one sounded an alarm in 1970 when the massive stained-glass dome, then 75 years old, disappeared over a span of days. According to Representative David Bartley, who was Speaker of the House in 1970, "Somebody walked off with a couple of pieces of it."

By the late 1970s, there was an obvious need for improvements in preservation. James Igoe, the deputy director of the Bureau of Public Records at the time, had taken to publicly exposing vulnerabilities in security, and even told reporters that the archives were less well guarded than facilities elsewhere. With a growing amount of low-level thuggery and organized crime hitting the region, in 1980 lawmakers finally approved a $19 million fortress in Dorchester for safekeeping. But the construction wouldn't be completed soon enough.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , State House, art theft, artifacts
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