Historic Ladder Blocks — An Endangered Resource in Downtown Boston

With no local protection or means of preventing demolition, the Ladder Blocks are at great risk of permanent loss of character.

What are the Ladder Blocks?

The Ladder Blocks are a series of city blocks located within Boston’s famous Downtown Crossing neighborhood and encompassing the historic Washington Street Theatre District. On the eastern edge of the Boston Common, north of Chinatown, and west of the Financial District, downtown Boston is a bustling hub for shoppers, residents, visitors, and workers. In and around the Ladder Blocks district are many of Boston’s most iconic and historic places like Old South Meeting House, the Granary Burying Ground, and the site of the Liberty Tree. The streets themselves that define the boundaries of the district are historically significant. Washington Street, once named Marlborough Street and one “rail” of the “ladder,” was once the main road connecting the Shawmut Peninsula to the mainland. Washington Street was Boston’s first thoroughfare and is thought of as the city's first Main Street. Tremont Street, the other "rail", sits adjacent to the Boston Commons and Park Street Station and has become another major thoroughfare. The streets regarded as the Ladder Blocks' "rungs" are: School, Bromfield, Winter, Temple Place, West, Avery, and Boylston.

Due to their location, the Ladder Blocks are typically bustling with pedestrian traffic. With a subway station at every corner, including the prominent Park Street and Downtown Crossing stations, thousands of people experience the historic streets of the district and the unique sense of place created by the character of the architecture and human-scale massing of the buildings. Winter Street is actually closed to vehicular traffic creating a pedestrian promenade reminiscent of the neighborhood's pre-automobile commercial dynamic.

Bromfield Street - the Epitome of Old Boston

Boston's Historic Bromfield Street Boston's Historic Bromfield Street today

Bromfield Street, also largely pedestrian, is often thought of the epitome of Old Boston. With stores tucked in side-by-side creating an intimate relationship with shoppers, lunch-goers, and leisurely strollers, the street is ripe with tangible history. Shops selling fountain pens, watches, and jewelry evoke the days before superstores, when shopping meant meeting the artists and makers themselves. The narrow corridor echoes with the words of Abraham Lincoln who once spoke here, and the irony that John Wilkes Booth once boarded on Bromfield. New development threatens not only the buildings and the architecture that display these traditions, but the people and the goods that are disappearing from the city forever. The charm and success of Bromfield Street have prompted many, such as Ed Logue, to question newly developing neighborhoods such as the Seaport District and ask, "Where is Bromfield Street?" The qualities of Bromfield Street are unique and create a special place that other neighborhoods should emulate and which should certainly be preserved within the Ladder Blocks.

A few blocks down, the Washington Street Theatre District and is an even more popular destination among tourists and locals. The Theatre District is located on the west side of Washington Street and south of West Street. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, it contains seven buildings dating back from the 1870s to the early 1930s. The Theatre District is a unique section of Boston, which showcases its role in vaudeville and early movies, and displays diverse architectural styles. The Theatre District draws thousands tourists and locals every year with plays, movies, and musicals. However, the Theatre District that is known today used to be the epicenter of adult entertainment and illicit activities in the city of Boston, also known as the Combat Zone.

The Combat Zone emerged when Boston's middle class journeyed from the city into the suburbs after World War II. According to the 1989 Midtown Cultural District Plan, during the 1960s, adult-oriented bars and theaters began taking over lower Washington Street. The city attempted to confine the activities and designated the area an "Adult Entertainment District". As more explicit businesses were established, the once affluent area became an undesirable district, which was plagued with major crimes, drug trafficking, and prostitution. However, in the mid-1970s, the City, the Boston Preservation Alliance, and other organizations began to take strides towards upgrading and transforming the Combat Zone. The 1989 Plan states that Boston's rising downtown economy and growth of Chinatown created a demand for office, retail, and residential space in the district. Scrutiny was enhanced upon the Combat Zone and many adult oriented businesses soon closed and were transformed into more desirable establishments. Suffolk University and Emerson College invested large amounts of money into the district; creating dorms and revitalizing theatres – Suffolk currently owns the Modern and Emerson currently owns the Paramount. Soon, many businesses followed suit and began to capitalize within the Ladder Blocks. Preservation and revitalization of buildings within the Ladder Blocks eventually transformed downtown Boston back into a desirable and essential district. The Combat Zone is now part of the Ladder Block district's colorful past and adds a chapter to its dynamic evolution.

Although they now house modern businesses, restaurants, and residencies, the majority of buildings retain their original character and exterior architecture. Only a small percentage of the buildings within the Ladder Blocks sit vacant, and these are typically part of development proposals and have been intentionally left to deteriorate by the owners. The building stock in the district is largely cohesive, exhibiting detailing such as quoining, engaged pilasters, intricate moldings, elegant iron balustrades, and classical cornices. Mostly made of stone and brick, the buildings typically house retail on the ground floor, offices on the upper one or two floors, and residential units above.

As the neighborhood has evolved, a combination of new construction, infill, and historic preservation has set a tone for the district. Most of the newer buildings were designed to be sensitive to the scale and character of the historic buildings. In the past, the restoration of the Paramount Theatre, Opera House, and Modern Theatres revitalized that section of Washington Street. More recently, the rehabilitation of two buildings into the Godfrey Hotel and the skillful restoration of Filene's Department Store into several office and retail spaces have spurred investment in Downtown Crossing and the Ladder Blocks. Though most alterations to the built environment in the past have been sensitive to the history and character of the district, some of the proposals emerging now are inappropriate and out of scale, threatening the fabric of the neighborhood. With no local protection or means of preventing demolition, the Ladder Blocks are at great risk of permanent loss of character. While the public has the opportunity to provide comment during a review process, the ultimate decision lies solely with the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BPDA) to approve or deny projects that will forever alter one of Boston's most historic neighborhoods. It is crucial that the BPDA understands, through broad public support, that this special district should be preserved and that new buildings should respectfully enhance the character, not detract from it.

The Ladder Blocks were added to Preservation Massachusetts' Most Endangered Historic Resources Program in 2016 to raise awareness for this unique district and the threats to its character.