Scollay Square (c. 1838-1962) was a vibrant city square in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. It was named for William Scollay, a prominent local developer and militia officer who bought a landmark four-story merchant building at the intersection of Cambridge and Court Streets in 1795. Local citizens began to refer to the intersection as Scollay’s Square, and, in 1838, the city officially memorialized the intersection as Scollay Square. Early on, the area was a busy center of commerce, including daguerreotypist (photographer) Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) and Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, the first dentist to use ether as an anaesthetic.
As early as the 1950s city officials had been mulling plans to completely tear the Square down and redevelop the area. Eventually more than 1,000 buildings were demolished and 20,000 residents were displaced. With $40 million in federal funds, the city built an entirely new development there, Government Center.
Among the most famous (and infamous) of Scollay Square landmarks was the Old Howard Theatre, a grand theater which began life as the headquarters of a Millerite Adventist Christian sect which believed the world would end in October 1844. After the world failed to end on schedule, the building was sold in 1844 and reopened as a vaudeville and Shakespearean venue. Later, in the 1900s and 1910s, it would showcase the popular minstrel shows.
By around the 1940s the Scollay Square area began to lose its vibrant commercial activity, and the Howard gradually changed its image and began to cater to sailors on leave and college students by including burlesque shows, as did other nearby venues such as the Casino Theater and Crawford House. “Always Something Doing” became the Old Howard’s advertising slogan. The venue also showcased boxing matches with boxers including Rocky Marciano, and continued to feature slapstick vaudeville acts, from likes of The Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello.
But it was the success and prominence of the burlesque shows that brought the Old Howard down. In 1953, vice squad agents sneaked a home movie camera into the Old Howard, and caught Mary Goodneighbor on film doing her striptease for the audience. The film led to the closure of the theater, and it remained closed until it caught fire mysteriously in 1961.
The square was also the home of Austin and Stone’s Dime Museum.
- John Winthrop Statue
To mark the 250th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the sculptor Richard Saltonstall Greenough was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of John Winthrop, the first Governor of the state. The statue was installed in September 1880.
Scollay Square was also a flashpoint for the early abolition movement. Author William Lloyd Garrison was twice attacked by an angry mob for printing his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, which began publication in 1831. Sarah Parker Remond’s first act of civil disobedience occurred in 1853 at the Old Howard when she was refused the seat she had purchased but was instead seated in the ‘black’ section. Many of the buildings in the area in and around Scollay Square had hidden spaces where escaped slaves were hidden, as part of the Underground Railroad.
Destruction and redevelopment
As early as the 1950s, city officials had been mulling plans to completely tear down and redevelop the Scollay Square area, in order to remove lower-income residents and troubled businesses from the aging and seedy district. Attempts to reopen the sullied Old Howard by its old performers had been one of the last efforts against redevelopment; but with the theater gutted by fire, a city wrecking ball began the project of demolishing more than 1,000 buildings in the area; 20,000 residents were displaced.
The city offered to give any demolished materials to anyone who could load and take away a full dump truck load. The materials included street paving blocks (Belgian blocks quarried in Quincy), granite, lintels, and bricks.
With $40 million in federal funds, the city built an entirely new development on top of old Scollay Square, renaming the area Government Center, and peppering it with city, state, and federal government buildings: Boston City Hall, City Hall Plaza, Government Service Center, and the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse.
References in popular culture
- Pearl Schiff’s best-selling 1952 novel, Scollay Square, tells the story of a young woman’s affair with a sailor she met in a Scollay Square tavern. The book was considered scandalous at the time.
- In the Kingston Trio song “M.T.A.” (written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes), Charlie’s wife goes down to the Scollay Square station every day, at a quarter past two, to hand her stranded husband a sandwich through the open window. The same scene is repeated with different characters in scenery set about 40 years later in the Dropkick Murphys song “Skinhead on the MBTA”.
- Sam Savage’s 2006 novel Firmin, a magical-realist account of a literate Rat, takes place in Scollay Square at the time of its destruction.
- In the game Fallout 4, one of the towns the player can visit is modeled after Scollay Square and is named Goodneighbor after Mary Goodneighbor, who was filmed by local authorities in 1953 doing a striptease at the Old Howard Theatre.