Theatre District
Contains: Ladder District
United States > Massachusetts > Greater Boston > City of Boston > Theatre District

Just south and east of Boston Common, the Theatre District and the Ladder District contain some of the most expensive properties in Boston, including the Ritz-Carlton Residences on Avery Street.

The neighborhood contains some of the oldest restaurants, bars, and venues in Boston, including the Orpheum Theatre (built 1852); Jacob Wirth (31-27 Stuart St.), established 1868; and Marliave (10 Bosworth St.), opened in 1885. That said, Boston has some even older restaurants, including the Warren Tavern (1780), Bell-in-Hand Tavern (1795), Union Oyster House (1826), and Durgin Park (1827). As an aside, Beat writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a Wirth regular, and featured it in his 1950 novel, The Town and the City.

Significant university presence. Emerson and Suffolk universities have a significant presence in the neighborhood, with dormitories, classrooms, and performance spaces.

Not a 24-hour neighborhood. Much like the nearby Financial District, while Downtown Crossing is busy during the day with a mix of shoppers and workers commuting in, there is little activity or foot traffic after office hours.

From "banned in Boston" to an entertainment district The Puritans banned theater in Boston until 1792 (as well as public hand-holding. And celebrating Christmas. The Puritans were kind of assholes). Boston's first theater opened in 1792, and by 1900, the Theatre District alone had 31 venues. Today, it has more than a dozen major spaces, including the Orpheum (1 Hamilton Pl.) built in 1852 and now one of the oldest surviving theaters in the U.S.; the Colonial Theatre (106 Boylston St.), opened in 1900; and the Modern Theatre (523 Washington St.) which, of course, dates to 1876, and was where the Jazz Singer, the first 'talking film' premiered in the 1920s.

Best blocks and notable buildings

The Washington Street Theatre District consisting of seven buildings on the west side of Washington Street (numbers 511-559), was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.[1] Buildings in the district include the Boston Opera House, built on the site of the city's second theater. Its entrance hall is the city's only surviving work of noted theater designer Thomas W. Lamb. Also in the district are the 1932 Paramount Theatre and the Modern Theatre. These theaters and their predecessors have displayed the gamut of theatrical entertainment across more than two centuries, including vaudeville, comedy, and film

The Ladder District is named for the shape of the streets (although this is, kind of, the shape that any parallel streets between two avenues make, but whatevs). The rails of the ladder are Washington and Tremont streets, while the rungs are Avery, Boylston, Bromfield, Temple Place, West, and Winter streets.

Colonial Theatre (106 Boylston St.) In 1912, there was a "no flirting agreement" during a run of The Quaker Girl, insisting that the sixty chorus girls agree not to flirt with any member of the audience before, during, or after the show, according to . Over the years, it has hosted Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles. In 1943, the theater hosted pre-Broadway productions of Oklahoma!, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein actually wrote the title song in the lobby of this theater.

Jacob Wirth (31-37 Stuart St.) The Greek Revival building was constructed in 1844, and the restaurant began in 1868. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Boston, after the Warren Tavern (1780), Union Oyster House (1826), and Durgin-Park (1827). The Beat Generation writer
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a regular, and featured the restaurant in his 1950 book, The Town and the City.

Charles Playhouse (74 Warrenton St.). Built in 1839, it was designed by the noted architect Asher Benjamin, and later served as the first synagogue in Boston, congregation Ohabei Shalom, from 1864-1889. During Prohibition, it served as a speakeasy known as "The Lido Venice," and after repeal, it became a legal bar known simply as The Lido. In 1937, it became Southland, a jazz club which hosted Fats Waller, Earl Fatha Hines, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, Countie Basie, Cab Caolloway, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington, among others. When the building was being converted again in 1958, the great Boston theater critic Elliot Norton wrote that the venue's rich history gives it "the proper sinned-in atmosphere to become a great theater."


The Theatre District and adjacent Downtown Crossing contain more than a dozen major performance venues, including:

Boston Opera House (539 Washington St.) hosts the city's annual, beloved Nutcracker performance.

Charles Playhouse (74 Warrenton St.).

Cutler Majestic (219 Tremont St.) is an ornate, gilded Beaux-Arts venue which opened in 1903. It is owned and operated by Emerson College.

Emerson Colonial Theatre (106 Boylston St.). Opened in 1900, it is described as the oldest continually-operated theater in Boston. It is owned and operated by Emerson College.

Modern Theatre (523 Washington St.) was built in 1876 in the French Renaissance style by architect Levi Newcomb (and whose son, also an architect, had the incomparable name of Edgar Allan Poe Newcomb). The first 'talking film,' the Jazz Singer, had its Boston premiere here in 1927. The theater is owned and operated by Suffolk University.

Orpheum Theatre (1 Hamilton Pl.). Built in 1852, it is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the United States, and redesigned in 1916 by Thomas Lamb. It has hosted lectures from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) to performances Aerosmith, James Brown, and The Police. The climax of Henry James' The Bostonians is set here.

Paramount Theatre (559 Washington St.) is a 1930s cinema palace owned and operated by Emerson College.

Boch Center (263-265 Tremont St.) was built in 1910.

Wang Theater (270 Tremont St.) opened in 1925 and was designed by Clarence Blackall (1857-1942), a leading American theater architect, who also designed the Emerson Colonial, Wilbur Theatre, and Copley Plaza Hotel. It is considered the most significant Boston landmark of the "Roaring Twenties."

Wilbur Theatre (244-250 Tremont St.), was designed by Clarence Blackall (1857-1942).


The Theatre District is well served by public transit. In or around the neighborhood, there are several Green Line (Arlington, Boylston Street, and Park Street), and Orange Line (Tufts Medical, Chinatown, and Downtown Crossing) stops, as well as the Red Line at Park Street station.


The Theatre District is just south and east of Boston Common. To the west are the Back Bay and Bay Village; to the south and east is Chinatown, and to the northeast is Downtown Crossing.

Within the neighborhood, the 'Ladder District' is named for the shape formed by the streets, rather than for any manufacturing activity. The 'rails' of the ladder are Washington and Tremont Street, while the 'rungs' are School, Bromfield, Winter, Temple Place, West. The Ladder District extends into both Downtown Crossing and the Theatre District.

The neighborhood is part of the Shawmut Peninsula that was expanded by landfill in the _______. While it dates back to ___________, as part of the downtown core, very little remains before ________.

From 'banned in Boston' to the 'Theatre District.' The Puritans who settled Boston were all kinds of Not Fun. While the first book was printed in the New World in 1640, it took only eleven years for a book to be banned. In 1651, the Puritans banned The Meritous Price of Our Redemption, written the previous year by written by William Pynchon. He was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, who founded both Roxbury and Springfield, Massachusetts. The work criticized the Puritans, and they burned copies on Boston Common, held his trial on the same place and day as the first witch trial (another not-exactly-high-point in our nation's history), and forced Pynchon to return to England in 1652. As an aside, he is an ancestor of the novelist Thomas Pynchon. In 1659, the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, on the premise that December 25th was chosen to coincide with a pagan festival.

Plays were banned in Boston until 1792. ... Boston's first theater opened in 1793. VERIFY# In 1878, the Ward and Watch Society was formed in order to ban books he considered blasphemous or obscene – basically, if they contained any mention of premarital sex. Over the years they banned works from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Boccaccio's Decameron to the song "Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers in 1957. They attempted to ban the song "Louie, Louie" on the basis that it's incomprehensible lyrics had to be obscene. At the height of the odious group's power, the Boston Public Library kept books they deemed objectionable in a locked room, and plays were performed locally in a bowdlerized "Boston version."

The phrase "banned in Boston" became a badge of honor – it came to be associated with the sexy and naughty. Artists, authors, and playwrights were often pleased when their works were banned in Boston, as it gave them greater appeal elsewhere. (much as Tipper Gore's PMRC labels in the 1980s ended up guaranteeing sales even of mediocre albums, because of the profanity and explicit lyrics that the labels warned about)

"The Combat Zone," Boston's designated red light district. The Wall Street Journal described the stretch of Washington Street between Boylston and Kneeland streets as "a sexual Disneyland." The street was lined with adult bookstores, peep shows, strip clubs, and X-rated movie theaters. In 1974, the Boston Herald described the neighborhood as “a malignancy comprised of pimps, prostitutes, erotica, and merchants of immorality.” The neighborhood earned the nickname of the Combat Zone both for its reputation for crime, drugs, and prostitution, as well as for the many uniformed sailors on shore leave from the nearby Boston Navy Yard, giving the streets the appearance of a war zone.

The neighborhood was designated a red light district when misguided urban renewal of the 1950s demolished the historic West End of Boston - including the former red light district of Scollay Square – to build Government Center. The adult businesses of Scollay Square were relocated here because the residents of nearby Chinatown lacked the political power to keep them out.

As an aside, technology perhaps did more than policing to change the character of the district. As the VHS and later, the internet emerged as clearinghouses for pornography, the former adult shops and peep shows began to close down.

Tolerance and diversity. Through the 1950s, the Ward and Watch Society ... [banned books that depicted inter-racial relationships] and even banned the 1970s television show Welcome Back, Kotter because it showed integrated schooling. The Combat Zone was also racially diverse at a time when other Boston neighborhoods were relatively segregated. In his memoir, Jonathan Tudan recalls the tension in his Tremont Street building over news of an impending police raid in 1969. Along with the drug dealers and prostitutes, he writes, “mixed-race couples shacking up have begun to nervously doubt their freedom.

Lower Washington Street was already part of Boston’s entertainment district with a number of movie theaters, bars, delicatessens and restaurants that catered to night life. It was located between the classic, studio-built movie palaces such as the RKO-Keith andParamount theaters and the stage theaters such as the Colonial on Boylston Street.With the closing of the burlesque theaters in Scollay Square, many of the bars began to feature go-go dancers and later nude dancers.

The Ladder District, One Step at a Time

By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Every Bostonian knows where Downtown Crossing is. It's the area that encompasses the centuries-old crossroads of Washington and Summer streets and extends from Boston Common to the financial district. Some still remember it as the city's former Combat Zone. Most, however, associate Downtown Crossing with a certain kind of basics-and-bargains shopping, thanks to the longtime presence of the fabled Filene's department store and other retail establishments.

The Ladder District lies within Downtown Crossing. Study this tiny central section on a city map and eventually the name clicks: Tremont Street to the west and Washington Street to the east form two rails of a ladder; the hatch of little streets stretching between the rails, from Boylston Street to the south to School Street to the north, are its rungs.

"It's really quite simple," says Boston-based publicist Chris Lyons. A few years ago, Lyons and two colleagues, who represented various pioneering businesses in the revitalizing neighborhood, brainstormed to decide on a distinctive name. "We wanted to re-create its image as something different than Downtown Crossing, which is more about retail, and separate from the theater district to the south."

Start at the intersection of Tremont and School streets. Better yet, step inside the building on this corner, the Omni Parker House (60 School St., 617-227-8600,; rooms from $180 a night), "America's longest continuously operating luxury hotel," and make your way to the first floor's Last Hurrah restaurant. There you can mull over the hotel's history as you graze on its famous Parker House rolls or Boston cream pie, both created here 150 years ago.

When it opened in 1855, Parker's was an immediate hit. Luminaries of all persuasions, from Ulysses S. Grant to Sarah Bernhardt, stopped here. Literary celebrities Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry David Thoreau held raucous meetings here the last Saturday of every month. Charles Dickens lived here during his 1867-68 American lecture tour, happily sharing both his gin and his recipe for gin punch one November night in 1868.

Now, stroll down School Street and turn right, leaving the noise and mayhem of construction behind to enter 310 Washington St., the white-spired Old South Meeting House (310 Washington St., 617-482-6439,, built in 1729 for Puritan services. An audio tour leads you around the airy, unembellished interior, re-creating the historic town meetings held here over the centuries. This was the place to be on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, when 5,000 colonists gathered to argue over the Tory tax on tea. "This meeting can do nothing more to save our country!" declaims an anguished Samuel Adams, setting off a commotion and a band of rebels known as the Sons of Liberty, who beat it down to Griffin's Wharf, where they dump 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor: the Boston Tea Party.

On West Street, another prized attraction is the creaky, three-story Brattle Bookshop (9 West St., 800-447-9595,, which lays claim to being America's oldest continually operating bookstore (since 1825).