Just east of Boston Common, Downtown Crossing is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city – and by extension, the United States. However, while it played a role in Boston's history since the 1600s, most of the area was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1872, which destroyed 65 acres of downtown Boston. But the narrow street grid is a reminder that the neighborhood was laid out long before most of the buildings which stand there today. Given it's prime location, it contains some of the most expensive real estate in the city.
The neighborhood has been described as the epicenter of Boston’s social, cultural and commercial history. Indeed, a bronze plaque at the corner of Summer and Washington, proudly declares the spot the "Hub of the Universe," referencing Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1858 proclamation that Boston was "the hub of the solar system." Hyperbole? Benjamin Franklin was born here in 1706. The Old South Church (built 1729) played a role in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. From his office on State Street, Charles Ponzi ran the biggest financial scam in history – until Bernard Madoff copied the Ponzi scheme a century later. And at the Omni Parker House (60 School St.) may be best known for where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Onassis, but the back of house is even more interesting: Ho Chi Minh worked as a baker, and Malcolm X as a busboy.
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.
The Puritans banned theater in Boston until 1792 (as well as public hand-holding. And celebrating Christmas. The Puritans weren't much fun). 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.
Reclaimed land. Downtown Crossing is one of many Boston neighborhoods that was built on or expanded using reclaimed land. The TL;DR version: hills were leveled to fill in marshes, and gravel and stones were brought it to extend waterfront areas. However, reclaimed land tends to settle over time, and is thus at higher risk for horizontal flooding from storm surges or climate change. In addition, the heavy buildings erected on reclaimed land were built on a series of wooden pilings – basically tree trunks rammed into the ground, until they connected with solid rock. While these are usually fully-submerged below the water table, the groundwater levels can change because of construction or climate change. When this happens, water levels may drop, exposing part of the wood to air, which can lead to rot and foundation issues.
Great Fire in November 1872 destroyed 65 acres of downtown Boston, from Downtown Crossing to the Leather District. This is one of the reasons why the area has so few architectural connections to its rich colonial and pre-Revolutionary history.
Best blocks and notable buildings
3 Bosworth St.
is the former residence of physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
(1809-1894), who lived here from 1841-1859. He was a brilliant doctor known for witty lectures at Harvard, his essays were published in the Atlantic (a magazine which he named) beginning with its inaugural issue in 1857. In addition to coining the phrase "Boston Brahmin," he also came up with "anaesthesia" after being present at the first successful public demonstration in 1846. Holmes was an alum of Phillips Academy and Harvard, and is descended from colonial governor Thomas Dudley
(1576-1653) and Anne Bradstreet
(1612-1672) the first writer in North America to be published, with The Tenth Muse Lately Spring Up in America
Benjamin Franklin birthplace
(17 Milk St.) Franklin was born here in 1706, and lived here for six years with his father, mother, and 16 siblings. They later moved to the Hanover and Union streets in 1712. The original building here was destroyed by fire in 1811, and Franklin's Hanover Street house was demolished in 1858.
Charles Ponzi office
(27 School St.) is where Charles Ponzi
(1882-1949) implemented his financial fraud that was later named for him – a 'Ponzi scheme.' While he did not originate the concept, he is most closely associated with it. During the year it ran, he bilked investors of nearly $20 million. As an aside, almost a century later, Bernard Madoff used the same approach to bilk investors of $65 billion.
Omni Parker House
(60 School St.) Founded in 1855, it is the longest continuously-operated hotel in the United States. In the 1800s, writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Longfellow regularly met here for their Saturday Club. When Charles Dickens visited in 1867 to do the first reading of A Christmas Carol
in Boston, he is said to have practiced in front of the mirror in the hotel mezzanine, according
to the New York Times
, and first read it privately for the Saturday Club members, according to WBUR
With proximity to the Theatre District, the hotel has hosted prominent actors from Sarah Bernhardt
, Edwin Booth
, and John Wilkes Booth, to James Dean, Stevie Nicks, and Ann-Margret. Baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were regulars. And it was where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. But perhaps most impressively, the kitchen and wait-staff that once included Emeril Lagasse, Malcolm X
as a busboy, and Ho Chi Minh
as a baker.
(88 Tremont St.) The original Tremont Theatre was built in 1827, was damaged in several fires, and rebuilt in 1896. Over the years, it has hosted a number of prominent speakers, including Frederick Douglass
, Sam Houston
, Abraham Lincoln, and Harriet Beecher Stowe
. In 1867, Charles Dickens performed his his first public reading of A Christmas Carol
140 Tremont St.
From 1834-1841, this was the site of Bronson Alcott
's Temple School, which featured a teaching style based on conversation and which was deeply opposed to corporal punishment. Insisting that any failing was the teacher's responsibility, he instead offered his own hand for an offending student to strike. The teachers included Margaret Fuller
(1810-1850), and Elizabeth Peabody
(1804-1894) who went on to launch the first kindergarten in the United States.
Bronson Alcott's daughter was the eminent writer, Louisa May Alcott
Old South Meeting House
(310 Washington St.). Built in 1729, among the notable congregants were Samuel Adams, William Dawes, Benjamin Franklin; Phyllis Wheatley
(c.1753-1784), the first African-American woman poet in the United States; and Samuel Sewall
(1652-1730), a judge known not just for his involvement with the Salem Witch Trials, but for being the one who most regretted his role in that misguided period. The building also played a role in the American Revolution. After the Boston Massacre in 1770, the church held meetings on the massacre's anniversary until 1775, featuring speakers such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren. In 1773, almost 5,000 people met in the Meeting House to debate British taxation. After the meeting, a group raided three East India Company ships anchored nearby in what became known as the Boston Tea Party. In 1775, the British occupied the Meeting House due to its association with the Revolutionary cause. They gutted the building, filled it with dirt, and then used the interior to practice horse riding.
Margaret Fuller House
(486 Washington St.) Former residence of Margaret Fuller
(1810-1850), a pioneering female reporter for the New York Tribune, a Transcendalist, and ______-. Fuller received an intense classical education from her father and became known as an intellectual prodigy. Working with Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, she edited the transcendentalist journal The Dial and was the first woman journalist for the New York Tribune. Her essay Woman in the Nineteenth Century is an American feminist classic. MORE#
13-15 West St.
was the Book Shop of Elizabeth Peabody (1804-94) is best known as the location of the 1839-44 Conversations led by Margaret Fuller
(1810-50) which helped crystallize New England Transcendentalism, a movement encouraging the perfection of each individual. A regular participant in these Conversations was philosopher and activist Ednah Dow Cheney
(1824-1904) who, at age 16, was the youngest participant. Elizabeth Peabody
, who was also a Transcendentalist, founded American kindergartens and here at the Book Shop became the first woman publisher in Boston. Her younger sisters were each married in the family parlor behind the bookshop. Sophia Peabody
(1809-71), an artist, married author Nathaniel Hawthorne
, and Mary Peabody
(1806-87), an educator, married Horace Mann
, considered to be the father of American public education.
Downtown Crossing and the adjacent Theatre District contain more than a dozen major performance venues, including:
Boston Opera House
(539 Washington St.) hosts the city's annual, beloved Nutcracker performance.
(74 Warrenton St.).
(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.
(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.
(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.
(559 Washington St.) is a 1930s cinema palace owned and operated by Emerson College.
(263-265 Tremont St.) was built in 1910.
(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."
(244-250 Tremont St.), was designed by Clarence Blackall
Commercial and retail
The area was a retail center for Boston goes back to at least the late 1800s, and the 1912 opening of the flagship Filene's store, designed in the Beaux Arts style by
(1846-1912), only enhanced that reputation. According to PBS, "Few individuals have had more impact on the American city than architect and planner Daniel Hudson Burnham. In the midst of late 19th century urban disorder, Burnham offered a powerful vision of what a civilized American city could look like." Burnham also designed the iconic Flatiron Building in Manhattan, and Union Station in Washington, DC. Some regard him as inventing the modern field of urban planning.