By Mike Dunphy | December 27, 2010
The old Howard Athenaeum caught fire around lunch time, drawing crowds from around Scollay Square, Boston.
It was an impromptu (or suspiciously coincidental) farewell performance for an audience already kept out for nearly a decade, ever since Boston Vice showed a clandestine film of burlesque divas Rose la Rose and Irma the Body to acting Mayor Francis X Ahern. Outraged at the overly “mobile abdomens” and suggestive “sinuosity” of the dancers, he ordered it closed on grounds of obscenity.
For the crowd watching the roof give way to the flames, the old Howard meant much more. Its sturdy façade of Quincy granite had served as a load-bearing wall for the community surrounding Scollay Square since before their grandfathers’ time. In an area then known for its seediness and decay, the Old Howard spoke of better days, when Scollay blinged with diamonds and furs and literally shook (and shimmied) its moneymaker.
If some in the crowd shed tears that June afternoon in 1961, others in city hall clinked glasses. The fortuitous destruction of the theater removed the last bulwark against the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (B.R.A’s) next ambitious plan, a shining new Government Center to wrest Boston from its urban decay and shed the drab, brick Dickensian image it was known for. Once gone, the wrecking balls moved in with speed and ferocity, pulverizing every other building, save one, on those 22 streets within three years. Thousands were robbed of their homes and livelihoods and the city robbed of its history.
“This was a city that was dying on the vine,” David Kruh, author of Always Something Doing: Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square, reminds. “Back then, to revitalize a city, you tore down and removed that which was old.” Boston was by no means alone in its pursuit of the newly available federal money as communities around the country, flush with ’50s prosperity and faith in scientific progress, followed a recipe of architectural cleansing and mathematical design.
Most folks passing through Government Center today have no memory of its predecessor, but they do sense that all is not as it should be. Leave it to the professionals at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit urban planning and design organization, to verbalize this intuition as “bleak, expansive and shapeless,” and further designating the expansive, windswept brick as “the worst single public plaza worldwide.” Apologists still defend the renewal as a necessary sacrifice for Boston’s late 20thcentury revival, and they are not without the numbers to prove it. But that depends on whether you define a city by its tax-producing properties or the people who inhabit them. Certainly Scollay’s demise was the city’s financial gain, but at the cost of the Crawford House, Joe and Nemo’s, Jack’s Joke Shop, Sal’s Barber shop, Marty’s Tavern, Patten’s restaurant, Tanya’s Tattoos, Epstein’s Drug Store, Young’s, Huberman’s, Walkers, Cobb’s, and the Old Howard.
One man didn’t give in so easily. George Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book shop, organized resistance and sought a reprieve of Cornhill, a street which ran in a parallel curve opposite the Sears Crescent. Long the city’s book center, the street claimed historical ties to Washington, Edison, Franklin, Hawthorne, Lloyd Garrison, Beecher Stowe, and even then President Kennedy. Gloss argued for the preservation of the neighborhood, especially the Sears Crescent. “Tearing down this building,” Gloss prophesized, “will mean the end of the old type of bookstore.” In the end, Gloss’s efforts did save his building but had to move his business to its current location on West Street.
That there were any survivors at all was a minor miracle considering the B.R.A’s scorched earth policy. Mere fragments, Scollay’s relics can still be found by those who know where to look, whether it’s the teapot over the Starbucks, the scraped mosaics on the blue line platform or the memorial plaque marking the stage of the old Howard.
The story of Scollay is important Kruh emphasizes because “within the square is our whole history. It’s about urban decay and urban development. It’s how our approach to history has changed, which we used to discard like so much garbage.”
Boston’s last major redevelopment project, the Big Dig, proves this. Despite the years of rancor and mismanagement, no building was seized by eminent domain nor was anyone forced to move. Elsewhere in the city, zoning laws have tightened, brownstones grown valuable, and new buildings garnished with motifs of the past. Even the T’s new mascot, Charlie, comes from a song about Scollay Square.
Why the change of heart? Is it just about the money? Or was it the memory of the thousands of displaced families, destroyed communities, and discarded history? If the latter, the sacrifice of Scollay may have saved the rest of us from new Government Centers.
Postscript: Elaine Albert Janko, a ONE reader share’s her memories of the Old Howard.
“I loved this article about Scollay Square. One day in 1956, I had decided to skip a day of school at Newton High , in order to see what all the talk was about regarding the Old Howard in Scollay Square. It was burlesque - strippers, comedians and altogether a fun afternoon! I am SO glad I “played hooky” that day as it was the first and only time I would ever get to see a live burlesque show.”