The neighborhood has a long history and several colorful incarnations before it became the bland destination with the all-too-literal name of Government Center.
In the 1600s, it was known as Valley Acres. After the Revolution, Pemberton Square became one of the most prestigious addresses in the city, and several of the city's leading theaters were here. From the 1800s to the 1960s, Pemberton and Scollay squares were the city's rowdy entertainment hub and red light district, where it was more likely to find burlesque than Hamlet on the stage.
However, in the 1960s, Scollay Square and much of the neighborhood were demolished during urban renewal and redeveloped as the staid Government Center. The neighborhood, along with the West End, represent the worst of misguided 1960s urban planning – what replaced the lively historic neighborhoods is largely unloved.
The center of the neighborhood is Boston City Hall, one of the most polarizing buildings in the city. It is perhaps the best-known and most-hated Brutalist building in Boston. The name of the architectural style derives from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” The building sits in the center of City Hall Plaza, a barren 11-acre brick expanse which is also regarded as a failure of urban planning and landscape design – and is an inductee into Boston City Hall Plaza is an inductee into Project for Public Spaces’ “Hall of Shame,” and rated on par with Barbie’s Dream House by California Home and Design. According to the Architects Newspaper, "Since it opened in the 1960s, there have been calls to update the building, completely overhaul it, and to demolish it outright and start over. There have, of course, also been calls to preserve it." Or remake it into a Architects Newspaper year-round entertainment zone, with Astroturf front lawn and more: "The City has signed a three year contract with hospitality management company Delaware North (which also own TD Garden and New York’s Rockefeller Center ice rink). Concept plans call for a 200-foot-tall, 42-gondolas Ferris wheel, a restaurant and beer gardens, a summertime beach, a winter garden with ice rinks, curling, and hot chocolate, as well as interactive public art installations, including a massive selfie-ready sign that spells out #BOSTON." Oof.
Best blocks and notable buildings
Two locations connect the district to its rich history of innovation, with Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone:
109 Court St. Charles Williams, Jr. was a manufacturer of telegraph instruments at this location, and it was at this shop that (1847-1922) and Thomas A. Watson (1854-1934) experimented with the telephone. And it was here that they heard the first sound transmitted by the phone on June 2, 1875; one year later, they achieved the first call: "Watson, come here – I want you." To our modern sensibilities, this sounds like a precursor of the booty call, a Victorian version of, "You up?"
As an aside, Williams lived at 1 Arlington Street in East Somerville, and had telephone numbers 1 and 2 of the Bell Telephone system, installed in 1877, according to Atlas Obscura. His telegraph company was later acquired by Western Electric.
28 State St. In 1877, Roswell Downer was the first person to install a commercial telephone. His office, Stone and Downer, custom house brokers, was headquartered here, and they had telephone numbers 3 and 4 as offered by Bell and Watson. He had one of the other very first phones installed at his residence, 170 Central Street on Winter Hill, Somerville.
Government Center is well served by transit, with multiple stops on the Blue, Green, and Orange lines within the neighborhood. These include Bowdoin (Blue), Government Center (Blue, Green), Haymarket (Green, Orange), and State Street (Blue, Orange).
Government Center is near the middle of the Shawmut Peninsula of 'Boston proper.' To the west are Beacon Hill and the West End; to the north is the Financial District and the North End, and to the south is Downtown Crossing. The Financial District is to the east as well.
Boston was established in 1630s, and this area was known as Valley Acres for the first half-century of the city's history. At the time, the heart of the colonial outpost was the North End, and the West End was still known as the West Fields.
Just like the West End prior to its demolition, Scollay Square was home to the leading figures of Boston ever since John Winthrop (1587-1649), the first colonial governor of Massachusetts, lived nearby. Within the neighborhood, Pemberton Square, developed in the 1830s as an enclave of bow-front rowhouses, was regarded as one of the most prestigious addresses.
Given how confusing Boston's street layout and urban plan is, it should come as no surprise that John Winthrop's statue is not in Winthrop Square, but in Scollay Square. And as an aside, the statue in Winthrop Square is of poet Robert Burns, best known for the drunken holiday favorite, Auld Lang Syne. And lastly, Boston is not alone in this: in Chicago, the statue of Abraham Lincoln is in Grant Park and the statue of Ulysses S. Grant is in Lincoln Park.
Pemberton Square was site of the The Horace Mann School, the first school for the deaf to be incorporated as part of any regular city public school when it opened in November of 1869. This photograph, taken in 1871 (courtesy of the Library of Congress) shows "Alexander Graham Bell, teacher of teachers, ... Perhaps it was the school's proximity to Scollay Square that generated Bell's interest in renting space on the upper floor of a building on Sudbury Street where, in 1875, he and Thomas Watson would first hear the sound of a human voice through the device they would develop into the first working telephone.
During the American Revolution, the now-demolished Brattle Square Church was used to quarter British troops during the Siege of Boston in 1775. Today, this would have been the site of City Hall.
The neighborhood began to be informally called Scollay's Square when William Scollay (1756-1809) purchased considerable land and buildings in the area and maintained an apothecary shop. However, that name did not become formal until 1838. The Scolley family were from Scotland's Orkney Islands, with deep roots in colonial Massachusetts. Ancestor John Scollay operated the Chelsea ferry in 1692, and William's sister Priscilla married Thomas Melvill (1751-1832) was a close friend of John Hancock and participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Their grandson was Moby-Dick author Herman Melville (1819-1891).
Home to two of the city's most storied theaters. The Howard Athenaeum brought some of the leading actors worldwide to Boston. One of these was the legendary Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), the head of a family of classical actors, including Edwin Booth and, sadly, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). John Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer who used his fame to access president Abraham Lincoln's theater box and assassinated him in 1865. That said, this behavior seemed to be hereditary: Junius wrote many threatening letters to Andrew Jackson, including one in which he threatened to "cut your throat while you are sleeping." It was a beloved venue, and ad man Frank Hatch immortalized its demise in his classic “Some Coward Closed the Old Howard.’’
Meanwhile, the Boston Museum moved to the neighborhood in the 1850s. It was founded by Moses Kimball (DATES), a colleague of showman P.T. Barnum, they often shared exhibits, including the 'Fiji Mermaid' a half orangatun/half fish. MORE# The museum hosted speakers including Mark Twain.
TITLE? Just across the street from the Boston Museum, was the office of Dr. William Thomas Morton, who is credited by some as the discoverer of ether as an anesthetic. Here he opened the first dentist office to offer “painless” dentistry, and advertised such in the Boston Post in the 1840s.
TITLE? Early in the 20th century, Scollay Square began to deteriorate. Cheap restaurants, tattoo parlors, penny arcades, pawn shops and saloons gave it a raucous atmosphere. There are millions of sailors from around the world who think of liberty in Boston as Scollay Square. The Government Center stands impressively where Scollay Square once gave a honky tonk atmosphere and a clock told the time in an elaborate kiosk over the subway entrance.
Pemberton Square, just above Scollay Square
Bell was not the only prominent inventor to work in Scollay Square. In fact, working in the very same laboratory space on Subury Street where Bell and Watson made their breakthrough with the telephone a young Ohioan built his first patented invention, an automatic vote counter. Although the young man failed to sell the device, he persevered and eventually built the prototype for his first money-making invention - the stock ticker. The picture above (taken by David at the annual Antique Radio show in Westford, MA) is of the first production run of the device that started Thomas Edison on the road to becoming one of the world's great inventors. (The owner wanted $5,000 for the ticker, a bit too much out of David's price range...)
Scollay Square in the 1880s
When the Irish came to Boston in the 1840s they settled first in the Fort Hill and North End neighborhoods, then into the West End. The Irish – and other ethnic peoples that followed in the mid- to late-1800s, changed the character of Boston. (Courtesy of the Bostonian Society / Old State House)
Court Street 1905
As the elite abandoned the West End and Scollay Square and moved further up Beacon Hill and into the Back Bay (which was under construction beginning in the 1850s), Tremont Row and the surrounding businesses in Scollay Square adapted to meet the needs of the immigrant class. The Square became, by the 1880s, a commercial center of Boston. Here's a grand shot of Court Street in 1905 simply bustling with actvity.
Austin & Stones Dime Museum ad
Austin & Stones Dime Museum ad
Austin & Stones Dime Museum ad
Among the commerical actvity that thrived here were restaurants, bars, and theaters. With the success of The Old Howard came other venues, such as Austin and Stone’s Dime Museum, which opened on Tremont Row in 1881 and was a mainstay in Scollay Square until it was torn down in 1912 to make way for the Star Theater. Click on the thumbs above to see full-size views from a promotional handout for the theater.
Scollay Olympia Theater
Built in 1914, Scollay Square’s Olympia was a popular theater where performers such as Milton Berle performed. Weber and Fields, Fanny Brice, Fred Allen, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, and many others were mainstays of live stage shows at this and other theaters, but even the most traditional theater owner had to bow to the new technology and install motion picture equipment, although live stage shows continued to supplement the bill of fare well into the 1930s.
According to a 1989 Boston Globe "Ask the Globe" column, "In 1927 the Scollay Square house announced it had created the 'finest of health zones' with the introduction of then-novel air conditioning. 'You could pay many thousands of dollars to spend a vacation at a camp or resort that has the good effect and curing powers that you can get at the Scollay Square,' the theater advertised. In 1935, in the aftermath of owner Nathan Gordon's death and the purchase of the house by Martin Mullins and Sam Pinanski, vaudeville gave way to motion pictures." The Olympia closed in December, 1950 just three years before the Old Howard was shuttered for good. (Courtesy of the Bostonian Society / Old State House)
Etching by Dwight Case Sturges
One of the most acclaimed American etchers of the early twentieth century was Dwight Case Sturges, who was born in Melrose and studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston. Sturges made this etching of Scollay Square probably in either 1912 or 1913, when the subway line from East Boston was extended to Bowdoin Square and points north.
Boston Subway Map
So many great websites and books have and are documenting the history of America's first subway system. Here's a terrific map (grabbed from the MBTA Twitter page (@mbtainfo) showing the critical location of the Scollay Square station - one of the system's first when it opened in 1898.
Boston Police Strike of 1919
Scollay Square played a large role in the 1919 Boston Police Strike, perhaps none more dramatic than the cavalry charge, ordered by Governor Calvin Coolidge, to disperse the huge mob which had gathered there. The story is told in detail in Always Something Doing. Another great source is Francis Russell's book on the strike, City in Terror.
Canada Point in Scollay Square
It's 1924 and we are looking at the Scollay Square subway station, surrounded by the newsboys who used to gather there to collect their papers before setting off to "hawk" them at city corners. This gathering point was known to the paperboys as "the Canada Point" (What does "Canada Point" mean? See this web site for an explanation.)
Suffolk County Savings Bank in Scollay Square, 1933
On a rainy day in 1933, someone took a photograph from in front of the Sears Crescent Building looking up Tremont Street. The imposing granite building across from Epsteins Drug Store is the Suffolk County Savings Bank, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary that year. (1933, for those who remember, was not the best timing for a bank to be celebrating anything...) (From "One Hundred Years of the Suffolk Savings Bank," pub. 1933)
Scollay Square in 1942
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library's Leslie Jones collection, we are looking up Cambridge Street into Scollay Square during the war (note the sailor in the lower right-hand corner near Simpson’s Loan). Those wonderful subway kiosks are long gone, but the Square is still a transportation hub. It’s also a highly popular destination, as evidenced by the all the double-parking in front of places such as the Crawford House, Jack’s Lighthouse, and, under the PM Scotch sign, the famous Half Dollar Bar. The Crawford House was, most notably, the "home" of Sally Keith, whose remarkable act is chronicled her own page on this site. (Courtesy of Robert Stanley)
Sketch by Jack Frost of Tremont Row
Jack Frost (undoubtably a nom de plume) published a small collection of sketches in a booklet he titled "The Old Home Town" in 1945. The caption of this one says "Scollay Square from Tony Ruggiere's Barber Shop." It's a great view looking towards Tremont Row and Pemberton Square. Note the Amusement Center next to the Waldorf cafeteria.
Joe and Nemo
Opened in 1909 by two West End barbers, Joe and Nemo’s hot dog stand quickly grew into one of Boston’s most popular restaurants. It’s proximity to the Old Howard (located just down Stoddard Street to the right of the store) certainly helped, but the store also generated tremendous loyalty by providing good, inexpensive food. (Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library)
Old Howard fire June 21, 1961
As plans for Scollay Square’s replacement were being formed (this site has two whole pages of photos on the Square's last days and demolition), a group of theaterically motivated citizens, along with Ann Corio and other former Burlesque stars tried to raise money to save the Old Howard from the destruction. But on June 21, 1961, a “mysterious” fire of “unknown” origin (the quotation marks are deliberate – the fire department’s report could find no cause for the blaze) swept through the 115 year-old theater and before the last embers had died out, several cranes moved in and tore down its walls, rendering rennovation impossible. (Author's collection)
Subway Construction 1963
Looking straight up the new alignment of the subway in Government Center. The JFK Federal building rises along what used to be Hanover Street. The elevated Central Artery (which cut off Hanover and other streets from the North End and Waterfront) can be seen in the background. Foundation work for Boston’s new City Hall is about to begin. (Courtesy of Dick Keough)
City Hall & City Hall Plaza Boston
No more tassels. No more hot dogs. No more fun. Government Center replaced Scollay Square in the early 1960s when Boston, desperate to prevent a slide into urban obscurity, secured over $40 million in federal funds to tear down this fading hot spot and replace it with a collection of city, state, federal, and private office buildings. (Author's collection)
Well, almost no fun. On February 5, 2002 over a million people jammed Boston's streets to watch a parade for the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots (a tradition that, since the new Millennium began, that the Pats would perform a total of three times, the Sox twice, and once by the Celtics.) All the parades, like the 2002 event shown here, ended up here at Government Center at Scollay Square. If nothing else, the event shows the immense need for a true civic space, and the inadequacy of City Hall Plaza - in its current configuration - to accommodate those needs.
Note: This is an article from The Boston Globe’s archives. It originally ran on Sunday, Jan. 8, 1978.
A visitor to Boston who hadn’t been here for 25 years would feel like Rip Van Winkle.
Spread before him would be the New Boston.
The Government Center stands impressively where Scollay Square once gave a honky tonk atmosphere and a clock told the time in an elaborate kiosk over the subway entrance.
Copley Square, once a triangle, is now really a square, and a glass skyscraper looms above Trinity Church and replaces the Westminster Hotel.
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Where the tracks of the Boston & Albany railroad once gleamed in the sunlight, are luxurious apartments, a new hotel and the shops of the Prudential Center. Mechanics Building, a massive structure on Huntington Avenue, where the annual spring flower shows and other exhibitions were held, has been torn down. And this renovation ends with the imposing Christian Science complex.
High-rise apartments and the new Faneuil Hall Marketplace with its restaurants and shops, have replaced the old rat-infested buildings and wharves, the Blackstone market and the cold storage warehouse.
But what was the Old Boston like? And was it so bad?
Scollay Square was once a pasture where cows grazed and blackberries grew. For the first half century of Boston’s existence it was known as Valley Acres. Gradually, houses and shops were built along the crooked paths the cows had made, and in 1634 a schoolhouse was built on one side of the square.
Until 1790 William Scollay bought other buildings. The Scollays were Scotsmen from the Orkney Islands. John Scollay operated the Chelsea ferry in 1692 and later was a member of the famous Boston Tea Party.
His son bought the area later and it was named for him. He lived on Tremont st. and had an apothecary shop at 10 Washington st. The name of Scollay Square was not official until 1838.
Early in the 20th century, Scollay Square began to deteriorate. Cheap restaurants, tattoo parlors, penny arcades, pawn shops and saloons gave it a raucous atmosphere. There are millions of sailors from around the world who think of liberty in Boston as Scollay Square.
Today it’s the heart of Boston’s Government Center. As you stand in the heart of the Center and look up at the gleaming towers of glass and steel you marvel at Center Plaza, the City Hall, the Saltonstall state office building, the JFK Federal building and the Hurley Building, and it’s difficult to remember the way that area once looked.
In the City Hall Plaza once stood the Crawford House, where Sally Keith, queen of the tassels, held forth. And nearby was the Harmony Bar, where the JFK Building now stands, was Jack’s Lighthouse, and in between were tattoo shops, small bars and photo shops, where sailors stopped to have pictures taken of them with their girls.
Other urban renewal projects of the era showed similar disregard for the original purpose of the areas in which they were conducted. Shortly after the West End's razing, the Boston Redevelopment Authority tore down Scollay Square, a commercial and theatre district of Boston on the edge of the West End, to replace it with a few government buildings. In this case in particular, the extent of the demolition is only fully realized once one sees a "before-after sequence."
The above photo, shown in Streetcar Tracks and courtesy Boston Public Library, shows Scollay Square in the 1940s as a bustling commercial district, with a multitude of shops and other commercial utilities. Today, after the demolition, this is Scollay Square: A desolate "brick desert," as John Kyper iterates in Streetcar Tracks, with nothing but government buildings.
To be fair, they left a few shops: