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Boston's Decrepit Theatre District [Broadband Recommended]


Cyburbian Emeritus

Boston’s Theatre District needs some work. A few things have been accomplished, but far more needs to be done. It’s been two decades or more since the Music Hall was restored as the Wang Performing Arts Center to get the ball rolling (if you can call it that). And the recent restoration of the dazzling Emerson Majestic is welcome—as is the refurbishment of the Paramount sign, and the imminent re-emergence of the Opera House, Boston’s most ornate theatre. But there is so much more to be done.

The Opera House re-opening promised by Clear Channel for this summer had better get a move-on. These pictures were taken on Easter Monday, and it looked to me they had a long way to go:



The Opera House is the one with the Lion King billboard covering its front, right in front of the Paramount:


By the way, look how good that Paramount sign looks—not just because it is newly refurbished, but also because its vertical format fits with the vertical rhythm of the buildings lining Washington Street, a verticality then propelled skyward by the skyscraper. Also, note how much more legible this vertical sign is than the much closer “Rainbow Ladies Sportswear” and the sign it hides. Not so long ago, Washington Street was lined with vertical signs such as Paramount’s, but they disappeared rather abruptly—possibly in response to some misguided sign ordinance. Those vertical signs need to return, along with a new generation of ground floor retail along this stretch of Washington Street. Just look at how many people there are on the sidewalk; surely some enterprising businessman can think of something to sell them.

The decrepitude around here is palpable and dismaying. When will someone do something about the Modern Theatre? Look at that filthy “Felt” banner. I’ll bet it’s there because the management knows it needs a big vertical-format sign but the ordinance won’t allow it. It will, however, permit “temporary” banners; hence…


That Paramount: a sign of hope…


When will the theatre itself follow its façade into respectability?

The scene in context: now you can see why nothing much is happening here in spite of the crowds: the city is gone!! Somebody carted off this section and put in a parking lot! Just like in the suburbs. Do the local NIMBYs prefer this to a modest high-rise?




Depressing grey hotel by the late modernist hero Romaldo Giurgola, designer of Australia’s National Parliament, Canberra.

Across the street, there is already a modest high-rise, and it looks good, like a transplant from Park Avenue:




At times, they should allow curbside parking along this stretch of Washington Street


But at present it lives badly: until the hoped-for upscale tenants move in, this building creates desolation with its blank, lifeless storefronts. This is a building to scurry past:



Sci-fi Architecture.

On its fringes there are signs of life:


When this little plaza was really lively, it was full of pimps. The touts are gone, replaced by bored workmen on lunch break. Also fronting the plaza is a Veronese Victorian reborn as Chinatown’s principal commercial building. It includes an arcade, and it is dull, dull, dull:


Around the corner still lurks a vestige of the Combat Zone, Boston’s zoned-in adult entertainment district:


The building doesn’t just look like Richardson, it is by Richardson. The ground floor used to house a sleazy arcade; the bank that replaced it is respectable, but it doesn’t do much for the life of the street:


Structural expressionism.

Chinatown is dreary generally. At its heart is a crummy parking lot, and a few steps away it resembles one of those welfare utopias that they are demolishing elsewhere:


And the medical school doesn’t do much for the area either:


All the decorative gates in the world would not suffice to redeem this island of cheerlessness:


Here’s a hopeful sign. They’ve finally started construction:


Around the corner, another dismal parking lot awaits its demise. Will the hotel ever get here to replace it?


Dying evergreens in boxes—a futile attempt to screen the abominable:


If you frame your picture carefully, you can make this stretch of Kneeland Street seem almost intact:


But if you swivel just a tiny bit, the illusion is shattered:


In this part of town the parking lots thrive like roaches in a cheap hotel. Jacob Wirth—that hoary institution serving pig's feet since Grant's presidency-- deserves a better neighbor than a parking lot.

Here’s a development site:


Too much brick.

Those six sad, bedraggled buildings are just dying to go their final reward. How about a nice, slim, faceted glass tower in their place, with four three or four levels of underground parking? But keep that tiny and almost invisible dormered gem at far right; sandblast it and open up the windows. That building is o-l-d:


A longtime Theatre District fixture, the Charles Playhouse is nice enough, but –brrrrr—look at its surroundings. Why can’t potentially charming little Warrenton Street be filled with café tables?


What a lost opportunity this street is! Just look at that bend: just waiting for some sympathetic pedestrianization –even while keeping access to the hotel’s service door.


Hardly anyone notices, but this street is even graced with a pair of minuscule townhouses, demurely tucked into the street’s bend:


More wasted potential: think how nice this street could be with its gaps plugged:



The hotel itself is an asset:


It has a great lobby:


Finally, the area has the most distinguished garage north of Miami Beach:


And Park Square, just to its west, is undergoing extensive and satisfactory redevelopment:





An infinitely big building.


On to Back Bay, beyond.


Cyburbian Emeritus
Damaged Cities

I posted this over at L'Urbanite and someone pointed out that this district doesn't really look so decrepit; by American standards, Boston's inner city is amazingly intact. Those few places that are not--such as the Theatre District--are being worked on.

By European standards, all American cities are damaged, even New York.

Mostly this is the result of parking lots, which simply do not exist in most European cities--at least not where there might otherwise be buildings. In other words, you can't use a building lot for a parking lot--as you can everywhere in America.

This is the real difference between American and European cities.