Just last week, The Boston Globe published an article extoling the transformation of Downtown Crossing into Boston’s “hottest destination.” Bustling with activity as residents, visitors, shoppers, and workers parade down pedestrian-filled streets, Downtown Crossing is, no doubt, a vibrant part of town. Yet its rich and diverse architectural character is vulnerable. The physical uniqueness of this area as a richly textured place of historic retail, commerce, and small shops is threatened by overexuberance for its newly rediscovered desirability.
In 2016 the Historic Ladder Blocks District was added to Preservation Massachusetts’ Most Endangered Historic Resources Program after the Alliance nominated this neighborhood. The Most Endangered Historic Resource (MER) listing designates resources as worthy of recognition due to their historic or architectural significance. While the list is not legally binding, it focuses statewide attention on the condition of these historic resources and their importance to communities. Economic success and increasing real estate values are wonderful, but they must be managed to not lose the very character-defining features that make them attractive. The Alliance saw several proposals for new construction in The Ladder Blocks with no holistic planning for the neighborhood in sight. We’ve raised a warning flag. Now let’s look at The Ladder Blocks and see why it’s a neighborhood we need to evolve with care.
Mapping the Ladder Blocks
Located at the intersection of Downtown Crossing and Theatre District neighborhoods, The Ladder Blocks consist of a series of blocks resembling a ladder when viewed on a map, giving the district its name.
Tremont and Washington Streets appear as the rails of the ladder with cross streets traversing from School Street to Boylston Street as the rungs. Many Bostonians walk through the Ladder Blocks without even knowing it. The area is easily accessible—public transportation pulses through all four corners (the Boylston, Chinatown, Park Street, and Downtown Crossing MBTA stops are all there)—resulting in heavy foot traffic that heightens its appeal as a commercial hub and historic district.
The Ladder Blocks is home to a number of architecturally beautiful and significant buildings, but its greatest strength comes from the diversity of all these structures combined. By having streets filled with historic buildings from a range of eras, The Ladder Blocks District is inviting to residents and visitors in a way that cannot be recreated and can easily be lost to large scale new construction.
The transition from what was a residential neighborhood until about 1872 to a commercial area resulted in buildings with both historically-typical and unique architectural features. The brick or stone side-hall Federal row houses that still stand at 13-15 West Street, for example, are some of Boston’s earliest forms of surviving architecture. Mid-nineteenth century granite commercial row buildings at 20-30 Bromfield Street were built during the height of Boston’s so called “Granite Era” and decorated with unique Egyptian motifs, and now stand as rare survivors of this once common form. Elegant theaters feature High Victorian Gothic (The Modern) and Art Deco (The Paramount) and now-restored (in part due to a major effort by the Alliance years ago) draw thousands of visitors each year. And hidden in the middle of the Ladder Blocks is the Orpheum Theatre too.
Density and Scale Reflect its Varied History
The Historic Ladder Blocks is one of those neighborhoods where diversity and scale demonstrates the richness of an organic neighborhood that has evolved over time. That lack of uniformity of style but overall pedestrian-friendly scale and welcoming nature of historic storefronts makes this neighborhood feel like the active center of an authentic city. It’s the kind of place that is inherently vibrant, but one with a vitality that can be squashed with the intrusion of too much modern, too much height, the loss of too much sky view by new, tall construction.
The Ladder Blocks was not always the fast-paced commercial hub it is today. When Boston was growing as a city, the small peninsula had little activity. In order to remain close to the water and main thoroughfare, settlers occupied the vicinity of Washington Street, then known as Marlborough Street. By 1634, Washington Street lined the public pasture that we now know as Boston Common. This street was once the only road connecting the Shawmut Peninsula to the mainland. Because of its vital location, Washington Street was Boston’s first thoroughfare and widely considered the city’s first Main Street.
As Boston’s population grew, the area’s role changed with colonists expanding the original town center and developing it into a fashionable residential area housing the city’s elite. By the 18th century this was an affluent residential area filled with townhomes, churches, and taverns. Notable historic establishments such as the Old Corner Bookstore (1712), Old South Meeting House (1729), and King’s Chapel (1754) materialized in this colonial period and continue to proudly stand in their original locations. With Downtown Boston as the Sons of Liberty and Ben Franklin’s stomping ground, nobody can deny this area’s history.
The Great Boston Fire on 1872 obliterated this area with over 500 buildings burning to the ground. However, the development following the fire added to the variety of architectural styles we enjoy on those streets today. In an effort to bring new commercial energy to this area, new department stores replaced row houses and commercial businesses took up shop. Stores like Gilchrist, Filene’s, and Jordan Marsh dominated the Boston retail landscape before anybody heard of Newbury Street.
Following World War II, the so-called Combat Zone rose in response to city dwellers exiting downtown Boston for the distant suburbs. Like in most American cities, shoppers went to malls in the suburbs and downtowns faltered. By the 1960’s the Theater District portion of the Ladder Blocks slipped into a seedy destination for adult entertainment. While, thankfully, retail never totally vacated this area, it dwindled to a pittance of its former self.
Thankfully retail hung on enough to see a more recent resurgence. Work by the Alliance and many others prevented the demolition of several of the historic theatres, which became catalysts for a new life for the Historic Ladder Blocks.
By 1989, Boston’s growing downtown economy and the development of Chinatown created an increased in demand for office, retail, and residential space where the two districts overlapped. With the Combat Zone facing increased scrutiny, the adult oriented businesses shut their doors making way for more desirable establishments. A second investment bump came from Suffolk University and Emerson College creating dorms and reviving the neglected Paramount and Modern theatres. This influx of young students and the institutions’ development attracted further businesses to follow suit and set up shop in the Ladder Blocks.
Boston is booming. A welcome sign of vibrancy, this influx naturally raises the need for additional housing and work spaces. Preservation advocates have played an important role in the ongoing success of the Ladder Blocks and Downtown Crossing. The Boston Preservation Alliance and the Boston Landmarks Commission were both heavily involved in the saving and restoration of the Landmark historic theatres, and the lights of their historic marquis are important anchors of the neighborhood. More recently the restoration of Daniel Burnham’s former Filenes (also a Boston Landmark) and the transformation of the Armory and Blake buildings into the highly successful Godfrey Hotel set the standard for how The Ladder Blocks can be…and should be enlivened even further. The area is becoming a twenty-four hour neighborhood again as the residential population grows and restaurants and coffee shops sprout up to meet that demand. The diversity of historic buildings in the neighborhood creates a wealth of opportunities for creative re-use: housing in under-utilized upper stories or the use of historic tax credits as were used in both the Burnham Building and the Godfrey Hotel, for example. In the next installment we’ll talk about specific interesting buildings in The Ladder Blocks and the opportunity they present and threats to them if foresight isn’t considered.