Looking Back at the 11 Most: Boston's Historic Theaters

Posted on: June 29th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a seven-part series that will explore the history of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Written by Wendy Nicholas

The Paramount Theatre in 1996. (Photo: Boston Redevelopment Agency)

Sixteen years ago, when Boston Mayor Tom Menino (an Advisor Emeritus of the National Trust) nominated Boston’s historic theaters to the National Trust’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, never would we have imagined what twisty-turny path historic preservation would take. Or, how long it would take!

This preservation saga is a great reminder of the adages: Good things take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Persistence pays off. And, patience is a virtue.

Distinguished in their day, the three Boston theaters we designated as endangered in 1995 sat shuttered and moldering in an area of downtown then known as “The Combat Zone,” the city’s adult entertainment district. The theaters trace decades of change in 20th century entertainment. The Modern, constructed in 1913 in a Victorian commercial building, was one of the first Boston theaters built exclusively for moving pictures. The sumptuous Boston Opera House, designed by foremost theater architect Thomas Lamb in 1928 as the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, was one of the last and grandest vaudeville houses built in the country. And, the Paramount was the city’s most elaborate Art Deco movie house when it opened in 1932.

The Paramount Theatre in 2010. (Photo: Boston Redevelopment Agency)

By the 1990s, both the Modern and the Paramount were just shells of buildings, and the Boston Opera House was so decrepit it came close to being condemned. The Paramount had totally lost its interior, at the hands of a developer who had big plans for its renovation as part of a mega-hotel/retail complex he proposed to build. Instead, he went bankrupt -- after having stripped out the theater’s interior and demolishing several other buildings. The Modern was so neglected that exterior walls had buckled, upper floors collapsed, and the interior theater space was in ruins.

Following the theaters’ listing among the 1995 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America, we had an all-hands effort in Boston to preserve them. I co-chaired a daylong reuse charette to explore scenarios for the theaters’ future and to come up with viable alternatives. We built a big coalition of organizations to shape the charette and recruit the diversity of experts necessary for success. Coalition members pursued every lead to tap the best people and make the strongest connections possible for the charette, locally and nationally. The League of Historic American Theaters provided great inspiration. We even recruited Disney to participate.

The Paramount's interior in 1996. (Photo: Emerson College)

The charette, held in March of 1996, was a huge success. It got lots of key people engaged, as well as attracted the interest of the general public. It produced some strong ideas and recommendations for reuse. And, it cemented the Mayor’s commitment to seeing the theaters preserved and reopened.

Unbeknownst to us, the charette had also attracted a ‘White Knight.’ David Anderson, a lover of old theaters who at the time worked for Pace Theatrical in Texas, flew to Boston to see what was going on. Within a short time, he had acquired the Opera House and had plans for painstaking restoration. Stymied by unforeseen events – sale of Pace to Clear Channel, the untimely death of his local project manager, lawsuits from neighbors, and more – David personified Persistence and Patience. But, eventually, the Boston Opera House reopened in 2004 with the Broadway hit The Lion King, renewed and reborn, just shy of a decade after the Trust ‘endangered’ listing.

Rescue of the Paramount and the Modern were much more elusive. In 1999, Mayor Menino was able to persuade Millennium Partners, developers who were building Boston’s new Ritz-Carlton Hotel just a block away, to repair the roof and exterior of the Paramount to keep water and animals out, and to restore its 3000-bulb marquee, bringing light and energy back to that dead area of Lower Washington Street. Six years later, Mayor Menino announced a partnership between Emerson College and Millennium to fully rehabilitate the Paramount. But, ground was not broken for two more years, in May 2007. By then, not much more than the façade and fantastic marquee of the building remained.

The Paramount's restored interior in 2010. (Photo: Peter Vanderwarker)

But, within the shell, Emerson College has created one of the country’s finest mixed-use historic theater complexes. The Paramount Center includes a recreated atmospheric Art Deco main theater with charming wall paintings by famed Evergreen Studios. It also houses a black box theater, a film screening room, sound stage, scene shop, seven rehearsal studios, green rooms, dressing rooms, as well as two restaurants and a residence hall for 262 lucky students. The Center opened to great acclaim in January 2010, nearly 15 years following the endangered status designation!

And, in November 2010, the Modern, the last of the three, reopened as a new performance space for Suffolk University with dormitory facility behind. By then, only the white marble and limestone façade of the building could be salvaged, but Suffolk did that, thus preserving the fabric and scale of the historic streetscape.

This preservation challenge had benefit of a great champion in the indomitable (and longest-serving) Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who understands that good things take time. He deployed the resources and expertise of the City’s Redevelopment Agency and its Landmarks Commission over a sustained period. Boston Preservation Alliance and Historic Boston, Inc. each played critical roles, and kept the dream alive whenever the going got rough. Today, a formerly dead area of Boston’s downtown is now hopping, with all kinds of performing arts, good new restaurants, the thousands of patrons these attract, and hundreds of new student residents. Good things do take time, and they’re worth the wait.

You can learn more about this year's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places — and you can help. By texting the word “PLACES” to 25383 on your mobile phone, you can donate a special $10.00 gift to support the National Trust’s efforts to save the places that tell America’s story. Click here for details.

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Thank you for your support.

Wendy Nicholas is Director of the Northeast Office at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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