Theater District

National Register of Historic Places

For more than a century this has been the theater district, but in the eighteenth century this area of Washington Street was lined with wharves. In fact, Josiah Knapp’s wharf at the intersection of Washington and Stuart Streets was so close to the street that pedestrians complained about the bowsprits of his vessels obstructing the highway.

The first theaters were built near the 1852 Music Hall. Over the next decades a dozen theaters were built several blocks south on Tremont, Washington, and Boylston Streets. The district was so well identified and densely populated with theaters that there was a connecting network of underground passages and lobbies. In bad weather, patrons could walk from theater to theater without ever going out of doors. Boston’s many theaters attracted famed actors from England and the Continent to its stages.

In 1900 there were thirty-one theaters in Boston with a total of 50,000 seats, but they were threatened by competition from coin-operated video machines, or “nickelodeons,” the forerunners of movies that launched the careers of Sam Goldwyn and the Warner brothers in Boston. The nickelodeon ultimately meant the demise of many theaters not only in Boston but also across the country. With the closing of theaters, Boston actors began the flight to Hollywood in the 1920s. Some legitimate theaters, such as the Majestic, Plymouth, and Copley, were turned into movie houses, and D. W. Griffith’s "Birth of a Nation" premiered in 1915 in the Tremont Theatre.

Today the district is active, with full seasons of plays, musicals, operas, and ballets on a number of historic stages. While New York City systematically demolished its best old theaters, Boston has cherished its architecturally significant collection of early theaters.