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Scollay Square, Boston, 19th c.
Scollay Square, Decoration Day, 19th c.

Scollay Square (1838-ca.1962) was a vibrant city square in downtown Bostonmarker, Massachusettsmarker. 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 the city's first daguerreotypist (photographer), Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901), and Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, the first dentist to use ether as an anaesthetic.


Detail of 1888 map of Boston, showing vicinity of Scollay Square

Scollay Square was located "at the junction of Tremontmarker and Court streets, Cornhill and Tremont row." Initially the city designated it Pemberton Square, but changed the name to "Scollay Square" when Phillips Square changed its own name to "Pemberton Square." The building that gave the area its name, Scollay's Building, was "at one time a wedge-shaped row of wooden buildings, extending from the head of Cornhill to opposite the head of Hanover street, separated Tremont row from Court street (see Bonner's map, 1722); at the southeasterly end the second schoolhouse in the town was erected, 1683-84; at various times portions of these buildings were removed, leaving only the Scollay brick building, supposed to have been built by Patrick Jeffrey, who came into possession in 1795; ... removed about 1870."


Old Howard Theatre
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 such old-time greats as local Rocky Marciano and John L. Sullivan, 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.


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 over 1000 buildings in the area; 20,000 residents were displaced.

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 Hallmarker, City Hall Plazamarker, Government Service Center, Edward W. Brooke Courthouse.

References in popular culture

  • In the Kingston Trio song "M.T.A." (written by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess 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.

Scollay Square, Boston, in the 1880s


  1. Boston Street Laying-Out Dept. A record of the streets, alleys, places, etc. in the city of Boston. City of Boston Printing Dept., 1910; p.414.
  2. A Brief History of Scollay Square.
  3. Charlie on the MTA History and Lyrics.

Further reading

External links

  • The Scollay Square Web Site
  • Scollay's Building, 19th c.
  • Scollay's building, 19th c.
  • Henry Ford advertisement, ca.1900
  • Aerial photo, 1946
  • Photos by Nishan Bichajian, 1950s
  • Burlesque revival, 2009

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