The Puritans banned theater along with most other forms of entertainment until 1792 but by the 1850s theatrical performances - especially farces and melodramas - enjoyed immense popularity in Boston. Theaters began to cluster along several blocks of Washington Street and Tremont Street in what was, and still is, called the “Theatre District” - invoking the British spelling still in use in Boston deep into the 1800s.
Boston theater reached its height of popularity in 1900 when 31 theaters offered 50,000 seats to theater-loving Bostonians. But by 1980, the downtown Theatre District teetered on the verge of extinction. The crowds that packed the former historic theaters, then movie houses, turned outward toward suburban shopping malls.
The city set out to clear out the strip joints and porn houses that overtook the decaying Theatre District. Today, the restoration of a number of the city’s splendid historic theaters means that Boston theater is again strong and thriving. The city has the largest group of architecturally outstanding early theaters in North America. Many of them have been meticulously - and magnificently - restored during recent years, and restorations of a couple are still underway.
You’ll still find most theaters clustered within the Theatre District, now confined to several blocks along Washington and Tremont Streets between Boylston and Stuart Streets. Our walking tour will start on the southern end of Boston Common that forms the northern wall of the Theatre District...
bounded by Beacon, Charles, Boylston, Tremont and Park streets
Boston Common is the oldest public park in the country, created in 1634 as a “cow pasture and training field” for common use. Cattle grazed here for 200 years, and the odd bull could look up every now and then to see the occasional public hanging that took place in the Common. The park is about 50 acres in size and is the anchor for the Emerald Necklace, the system of connected parks that visit many of Boston’s neighborhoods.
Central Burying Ground
southern end of Boston Common along Boylston Street, between Charles and Tremont streets
The town purchased the land for this graveyard in 1756, probably for foreigners who died in town and of poor people. During the American Revolution, the British buried their dead from the Battle of Bunker Hill here and soldiers who died of disease during the subsequent winter occupation of Boston were placed in a trench on the northwest corner of the burying ground. Brick and stone tombs were built on the Boylston Street side beginning in 1793 and continued until the 1830s when the Boylston Street Mall was laid out. While constructing the subway under Boylston Street in 1894 the remains of about 910 people were unearthed; the remains were re-interred in 1895 and a slate tablet with three boundary stones, was placed to mark the spot.
TURN LEFT AND WALK EAST ON BOYLSTON STREET.
The Tavern Club
4 Boylston Place
Pass under an iron archway, duck into a short alley, and you find the venerable Tavern Club, founded in 1884 as a place where the city’s patrician class could gather; it moved to these three rowhouses in 1887. Number 4 in the middle of the alley is marked by a Federal-style entrance with a fanlight and sidelights and the two corner houses are Victorian confections boasting oriel windows.
162 Boylston Street
Back in his native Bavaria Morris Steinert developed a knack for making optical goods. In his spare time he became proficient in crafting musical instruments such as piano, organ and violin. After he sailed to America Steinert chucked eyecare and fashioned a career as an itinerant musician and music teacher. By 1860, he had opened his own piano shop in Athens, Georgia. Steinert didn’t stay long, leaving for New York City when the Civil War broke out. He opened a small music store in New Haven, Connecticut and, in 1869, was granted agency status by Steinway & Sons, the world’s premier piano makers. In 1878, Steinert, with two sons now joining him in the business, opened a successful store in Providence, Rhode Island. The company headquarters was moved to Boston in 1883, and Steinert Hall, a six-story Beaux Arts showroom in limestone and terra cotta, was built in 1896. This block of Boylston Street emerged as the heartland for piano building and music publishing in Boston. The Wurlitzer Company operated out of Number 100, the E.A. Starck Piano Company Building was at 154-156, and the Vose & Sons Piano Company, established in 1851, was headquartered at 158-160.
106 Boylston Street
Built in 1900 the Colonial Theatre this is the oldest continuously operating theatre in Boston. Clarence Blackall, the most celebrated theater architect of his day, crafted a a stage within an office building. The Colonial opened on December 20, 1900 with a performance of Ben-Hur, the heroic saga penned by Civil War general and New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace. Patrons were treated to a cast of 350 and a chariot race using 8 live horses. The playhouse has hosted many world premieres and pre-Broadway productions with Porgy And Bess; Oklahoma!; and Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant Of Yonkers (the inspiration for Hello, Dolly!) among the many.
TURN LEFT ON TREMONT STREET.
175 Tremont Street
Considered by many to be the best modern-day movie palace in New England, the three-story AMC/Loew’s is the home of the Boston International Film Festival. It opened in 2001 on the former site of the Astor (Tremont) Theatre, which had been demolished two decades earlier.
TURN RIGHT ON WEST STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET.
Modern Theatre Site
523-525 Washington Street
Opened in 1914 by Boston theater pioneer, Jacob Lourie, the Modern Theatre was the site of the first installed sound projection equipment in the country. Lourie also introduced the double feature that defined movie-going in the first half of the 20th century. Later known as the Mayflower Theatre, the the theater closed in 1980. The Modern was demolished in early 2009, but its exuberant French Renaissance facade, designed by Clarence H. Blackall, was carefully salvaged with the hope of bolting it back onto the modern building which is due to constructed on the site.
Boston Opera House
539 Washington Street
This opulent Spanish Revival confection was known as the B.F. Keith Memorial Theatre when it opened in 1928. Benjamin Franklin Keith was born in New Hampshire in 1846 and got into show business via the circus. His career as an impresario began at the Boston Bijou Theatre in 1885 and he pioneered the 12-hour continuous vaudeville extravaganza in the 1890s. Name and ownership changes followed until the Opera Company of Boston took over in 1978. The theater has been recently renovated and restored.
549 Washington Street
Opened in 1932, the Paramount was the last of the great movie palaces erected on downtown Boston’s Washington Street, and the only one built exclusively for the new “talkies.” More than 1,700 patrons could fill the the Art Deco theater. The Paramount fought the usual losing battle with suburban flight and television and was shuttered in 1976. It was closed, although its impressive marquee was occasionally lit at night, and a restoration was engineered by Emerson College.
TURN LEFT ON BOYLSTON/ESSEX STREET.
15-17 Essex Street
Victorian Boston was filled with Romanesque Revival buildings like this one but it is rare to bump into one today. This 1875-era structure provided living space on the top floors and selling space for three decades for Stern & Company to peddle sewing machines.
TURN AROUND AND CROSS WASHINGTON ONTO BOYLSTON STREET.
Liberty Tree Block
corner of Washington and Boylston streets
On August 14, 1765, the British official charged with administering the detested Stamp Act was hung in effigy from an elm tree here. A small group of merchants and master craftsmen had staged the prank, but soon a large crowd gathered to vent their anger as well. Soon the whole town was using the “Liberty Tree” to post notices, gather for speeches, and hold outdoor meetings. The practice caught on and Liberty Trees became all the rage in Colonial towns. The Liberty Tree Block, blending Greek Revival and Italianate style details, was erected in 1850 for businessman David Sears. Ship carvers Winsor & Brother’s third floor bas-relief remembers the symbolic elm tree that was chopped down for its construction.
2-22 Boylston Street
Boston-born architect Charles Bulfinch was the first American who made his living as an architect, he would eventually design three state capitols and much of the Boston streetscape in the early years of the Republic. His celebrated Boylston Market stood on this site. This building replaced it in 1887, designed by Carl Fehmer with different sizes of Romanesque arches. After the Great Fire of 1872 leveled some 1,500 buildings many clothing companies relocated to this part of town.
Boston Young Men’s Christian Union
48 Boylston Street
After Unitarians were excluded from the new forming Young Mens Christian Associations, the Boston Young Men’s Christian Union was founded by Harvard students in 1852 as a religious study group, and evolved into a social, intellectual, and religious organization for men. Boston architect and engineer Nathaniel J. Bradlee gave them this High Gothic style clubhouse in 1876, executed with alternating bands of colored stone.
TURN AROUND AND RETURN TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
681 Washington Street at La Grange Street
Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential architect of the post-Civil War era, designed the Hayden Building in 1875. Built for the estate of John C. Hayden, Richardson’s father-in-law, it is the architect’s only remaining commercial structure in Boston. The five-story brownstone with granite trim trundled on for nearly 100 years with its pedigree unknown since it was constructed for the Richardson family and never appeared on his firm’s books. Historic Boston Incorporated restored the fire-damaged building n 1995.
TURN RIGHT ON STUART STREET.
Jacob Wirth Buildings
31-39 Stuart Street
German immigrant Jacob Wirth has been dishing out sausages and sauerkraut to Bostonians since 1868; he moved his restaurant to this location several years later. His family maintained the tradition, and the cuisine and atmosphere have changed little over the years. The late 19th century interior remains virtually intact. Built in 1845, the buildings are the only souvenirs of the bow-front Greek Revival rowhouses that once dominated the area. In 1889, Wirth expanded next door, adding the storefront that unites the properties today.
TURN LEFT ON TREMONT STREET.
244-250 Tremont Street
Clarence Blackall wedded Georgian, Federal and Greek motifs into this 1914 playhouse. The facade stacks tall arched windows with iron balconies above three classical pedimented entrances with recessed porticoes flanked by Ionic columns. The Wilbur was the first theater in the United States to be based on early Colonial architecture rather than European influences. Looking like it would be at home on Beacon Hill, the Wilbur is a better stylistic fit with the rest of Boston’s architecture than its ultra-ornate Theatre District cousins.
270 Tremont Street
The Wang Center, originally called the Metropolitan Theater and later called the Music Hall, is Boston’s largest performance space in the Theatre District, seating some 4,000 patrons. As conceived in 1923 it hosted live performances and moving picture shows. The lavish interior is liberally sprinkled with colored marbles and 1,800-pound gold-plated chandeliers, helping transport patrons on a journey of the mind.
265 Tremont Street
The smallish 1,500 seat Shubert Theatre, built in 1910, was once one of seven Boston theaters owned by the New York-based trio of Shubert brothers. Due to anti-trust legislation of the 1950s, the Shubert family divested themselves of all but this one. During the days when Broadway productions were tested first in Boston, the Shubert hosted such famous actors as Laurence Olivier, John Barrymore, Richard Burton, Angela Lansbury, and Julie Andrews. Architect Thomas M. James drew up plans for the elegant Palladian-influenced facade.
TURN RIGHT ON SEAVER PLACE. TURN LEFT ON WARRENTON STREET.
76 Warrenton Street
The Charles Playhouse was originally designed by Benjamin Asher and built in 1839 as the Fifth Universalist Church. Occupied by a series of religious denominations (one the first synagogue in Boston in 1864, home of congregation Ohabei Shalom) over being the decades, this Greek Revival temple became a theater only in the late 1950s. Two stores initially occupied the ground floor as a means of providing rental income to the church upstairs.
TURN AROUND AND WALK NORTH ON WARRENTON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON STUART STREET AND TURN LEFT ON TREMONT STREET.
219 Tremont Street
John Galen Howard designed the Beaux Arts this entertainment palace in 1903 for the opera; the Majestic was converted to a vaudeville hall in the 1920s. In the 1950s, when the Majestic was made into a movie house only, Howard’s marble-encrusted lobby was covered up for three decades until the entire theater was boards up. The elaborate finery is once again on display after a restoration. the Majestic was one of the first places in Boston where lights were installed for decoration and not just to illuminate a room.
CONTINUE ON TREMONT STREET BACK TO BOSTON COMMON AND THE START OF THE WALKING TOUR.