Arts & Culture

A Trip Through Scollay Square Hosted by the North End Library

By Mary Sanderson

The Friends of the North End Library continue to sponsor high-interest programs for the North End community. At our most recent offering, a rapt audience of over 50 people gathered at the library to hear the entertaining history of Scollay Square.

Author David Kruh discussed his book Always Something Doing: Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square by presenting a comprehensive photo journey of the area both past and present. He began by reaching back to its early origins, through its colorful era as an entertainment mecca, to its current incarnation as Government Center / City Hall Plaza.

In the second half of the 1800s, the Square was quite refined. It was home to Tremont Row which housed high-end shops, dance studios, photography studios, and dentists (where ether was first used in dental practice) and the Sears Crescent Building.

The area was home to a number of firsts – electrified trolleys in 1887, and the first subway line in the nation from Park to Boylston and on to Scollay Square with “cut and cover” construction in 1897. The Square housed the first motion picture house in 1906. The Howard Athenaeum (“the Howard” as it became affectionately known) was built, home to a great variety of entertainment. Since many women attended the shows, renovations had to accommodate “ladies rooms” for the burgeoning clientele.

Author David Kruh addresses the crowd.

Over the years, the area changed dramatically to cater to the immigrants’ interests – theaters, lunch counters, tattoo parlors and bars. Sailors would make a “bee line” for the Square as soon as they disembarked from their ships. The Howard was now showing what the general public wanted – burlesque, variety shows and vaudeville. Burlesque went through a transformation to a less refined “bump and grind” style. Joe and Nemo’s across the street from the Howard was another landmark as it turned in to a hugely popular restaurant.

In the mid 1900s, the Square went through its latest major transformation. The past was effectively erased. Different mayors left their fingerprint, ultimately resulting in the demolition of the area and the building of City Hall Plaza. Securing massive federal funding, demolition began in 1960, and a national competition was held to design a new City Hall. Yes, the current design was the winner. The City Hall and Government Center that stands today was completed in 1968, the latest chapter in this once colorful area of downtown Boston.

This program was generously funded by the Friends of the North End Library.

For more information concerning the Friends of the NE Library, please email: or go to our website: for membership information and a listing of other programs.

Also, remember our continuing improved daily book sale on the shelves near the front door and in the back of the library. Our book sales are the source of our funds to pay for these exciting programs. Buy a current best seller book; leave a favorite book you read!

One Reply to “A Trip Through Scollay Square Hosted by the North End Library

  1. “Yes, the current design was the winner”. I get the comment. For some real laughs, we should dig up the losers. Or more likely we get a look at patronage in the past.

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