Showtime in Downtown Boston

ArticleTonight we’re diving into our recently digitized Boston Redevelopment Authority Collection with a Map Show and Tell event—here’s a sneak peek of a map that we’ll look at

Rachel Mead
March 9, 2021
418 words

Welcome back to the BRA Collection, our newest digitized collection, consisting of 124 historic city planning maps of Boston, that we introduced to you here. The map we’re talking about today is a map of the Theater District in downtown Boston.

This 1988 map tells a story about the preservation—or lack thereof —of historic theaters in Boston, a city which supposedly has the second highest concentration of old theaters outside of New York. This map lays out a plan to “revitalize” the theater district as a “multi-faceted Cultural District,” complete with places to eat, shop, and engage in public art. To what extent did Boston succeed in creating a modern and bustling cultural district downtown?

The cluster of theaters centered on Tremont and Washington Streets had a long history before this 1988 redevelopment map was drawn up. The opera house, for example, was already the Academy of Music in 1861, the oldest urban atlas layer visible on Atlascope.

The Academy of Music property became the Boston Theatre, which was replaced by the Keith Memorial Theatre by 1928. In this Atlascope view, swipe back and forth to see what changed in the neighborhood in between 1922 and 1928. While the Boston Theatre changes its name to the Keith Memorial Theatre and expands its footprint over this period, other theaters remained the same across this six year span, including the Bijou Dream, Keith’s Theatre, and Modern Theatre.

By panning around the map above, you can see the plethora of theaters whose buildings still formed the focal point for this part of Boston by the time the BRA map was published in 1988. Some, like the Gaiety Theatre at 659 Washington St., stood vacant in 1988. The BRA seems to have considered it “substantially altered,” and therefore not “worthy of preservation.” Marked for demolition, it was eventually razed in in 2005.

The Publix/Gaiety theater appears in the upper left of this excerpt

The Publix/Gaiety theater appears in the upper left of this excerpt

Others, or their descendants, remain in use today. Modern Theatre, for example, still exists in its original location as a part of Suffolk University, although only the facade of the building is original. Like several of the other theaters downtown, it has been both a movie and stage theater during its long and storied life.

If this was fun for you, make sure you check out tonight’s event. See you there with your favorite map!