After dark, when throngs of commuters have left Roxbury’s Dudley Square, the lights still burn brightly at Hibernian Hall. It has been that way for most of the building’s 100 years, even after the curtains stopped closing on Irish step dances and then Jewish bat mitzvahs. The bustle of life has continued at Hibernian Hall even as Dudley Square stood neglected and isolated while the rest of the city sizzled with development.
And, supporters say, it will be that way for generations to come, as hope rises from the dust of once-barren lots that dot the square, and as a new generation of African-Americans, Somalis, and Salvadorans flocks to the hall to hold weddings, birthday celebrations, and graduation fetes.
“In a way, Hibernian Hall is a link to the past,’’ says the hall’s artistic director Dillon Bustin. “But in another way, it is also carrying the same function, which is a gathering place.’’
The four-story hall stands on a strip of Dudley Square, at a gateway to downtown and in the commercial heart of Boston’s African-American community.
In 1913, after years of organizing and fund-raising, the Ancient Order of Hibernians opened the building as one of five Irish dance halls in Roxbury. It is the only one still standing. The Hibernians wanted “a suitable building for the purpose of meetings, lectures, concerts, and gatherings,’’ according to a synopsis of the building’s history, stored in a metal time capsule that was unveiled earlier this year to mark the hall’s centennial.
Among the items stowed inside the box were newspapers from May 31, 1913, piles of cards to stockholders, old coins, and a written account of how the hall was founded. “Future generations will reap the benefits of the labors of the present,’’ the account reads.
In the early years, people came to the hall in droves — in crisp dark suits and tight, colorful dresses. They spilled into the enormous ballroom under its bright lights as big bands played. By day, they came back seeking jobs, culture, and camaraderie. As times and the neighborhood changed — from Irish, to Jewish, to predominantly African-American — the hall remained a destination. But by the 1990s, the neglected hall was shuttered. Madison Park Development Corp. bought the building in 2000, spent millions to renovate it, and reopened the structure in 2005. The three-story building now houses offices and nonprofits. Its massive hall remains on the third floor.
Through the years, Hibernian Hall has been the site of jobs training, a weekly jazz hub, community meetings, and theatrical readings. The historic hall was a prominent feature in the recent mayoral race, when candidates courted would-be voters there.
The years have not been easy. As the Dudley Square area reeled from crime and fear in the 1980s, residents waited through the decades that followed while other parts of Boston were redeveloped, officials say. That will soon change as the city turns its focus to rebuilding the square.
“We’ve been here, holding forth, waiting,’’ says Bustin. “And in a way we are very busy and very well-utilized by the community. Now, the sudden spotlight on Dudley.”
On a recent Sunday, the hall hummed with life. A group had just finished holding church service, and caterers were bringing in food for a breast-cancer fund-raiser. As local band L&F was warming up the crowd, Musu-Kulla Massaquoi, a breast cancer survivor, says she could think of no better place to host the event. “It’s a beautiful setting,’’ she says. “People don’t know that this building exists until they come inside.”