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Jan. 18, 1978

After Scollay Square: Ghosts from the past still linger about new Boston

Scollay Square in 1906.
Scollay Square in 1906.Globe File/FILE PHOTO

Note: This is an article from The Boston Globe’s archives. It originally ran on Sunday, Jan. 8, 1978.

A visitor to Boston who hadn’t been here for 25 years would feel like Rip Van Winkle.

Spread before him would be the New Boston.

The Government Center stands impressively where Scollay Square once gave a honky tonk atmosphere and a clock told the time in an elaborate kiosk over the subway entrance.

Copley Square, once a triangle, is now really a square, and a glass skyscraper looms above Trinity Church and replaces the Westminster Hotel.

Where the tracks of the Boston & Albany railroad once gleamed in the sunlight, are luxurious apartments, a new hotel and the shops of the Prudential Center. Mechanics Building, a massive structure on Huntington Avenue, where the annual spring flower shows and other exhibitions were held, has been torn down. And this renovation ends with the imposing Christian Science complex.

High-rise apartments and the new Faneuil Hall Marketplace with its restaurants and shops, have replaced the old rat-infested buildings and wharves, the Blackstone market and the cold storage warehouse.

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But what was the Old Boston like? And was it so bad?

Scollay Square was once a pasture where cows grazed and blackberries grew. For the first half century of Boston’s existence it was known as Valley Acres. Gradually, houses and shops were built along the crooked paths the cows had made, and in 1634 a schoolhouse was built on one side of the square.

Until 1790 William Scollay bought other buildings. The Scollays were Scotsmen from the Orkney Islands. John Scollay operated the Chelsea ferry in 1692 and later was a member of the famous Boston Tea Party.

His son bought the area later and it was named for him. He lived on Tremont st. and had an apothecary shop at 10 Washington st. The name of Scollay Square was not official until 1838.

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Early in the 20th century, Scollay Square began to deteriorate. Cheap restaurants, tattoo parlors, penny arcades, pawn shops and saloons gave it a raucous atmosphere. There are millions of sailors from around the world who think of liberty in Boston as Scollay Square.

Today it’s the heart of Boston’s Government Center. As you stand in the heart of the Center and look up at the gleaming towers of glass and steel you marvel at Center Plaza, the City Hall, the Saltonstall state office building, the JFK Federal building and the Hurley Building, and it’s difficult to remember the way that area once looked.

In the City Hall Plaza once stood the Crawford House, where Sally Keith, queen of the tassels, held forth. And nearby was the Harmony Bar, where the JFK Building now stands, was Jack’s Lighthouse, and in between were tattoo shops, small bars and photo shops, where sailors stopped to have pictures taken of them with their girls.

Where the Hurley Building is now was the Half-Dollar Bar, so-called because half-dollar coins were imbedded in the wood of the bar. Further along was Joe and Nemo’s, whose hot dogs were known around the world.

Just as Gilbert and Sullivan have first names that are seldom mentioned by devotees of light opera, Joe and Nemo had last names that were not known to the thousands who partook of their hot dogs. Joe was Joe Merlino of Medford and Nemo was Anthony Cologgerio of Nahant. Nemo was the name of a comic strip character of the times.

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There were two theaters - the Scollay Square and the Rialto. The latter’s claim to fame was that it stayed open all night. It was popular with those who had imbibed too much. They didn’t care what the film was, they just welcomed the theater as a place to sleep.

“Something doing from 1 to 11” was the slogan of the Old Howard that was prim and churchly on the outside and bawdy with burlesque on the inside. It was popular with Harvard students as well as their fathers who strolled up from their State Street offices.

Many a Harvard freshman sneaked into the Old Howard and glanced furtively around to see if there was anyone who would recognize him and tell his old man he’d been there. As he was going out, one young man was chagrined to meet his father going in!

Scollay Square officially died on May 6, 1962, when the Casino burlesque house was razed. Many Proper Bostonians applauded the demise of what was called a den of iniquity and welcomed the resplendent Government Center.

But for some oldsters the name will remain Scollay Square. Although New York renamed 6th Avenue grandly The Avenue of the Americas, many New Yorkers still call it just plain 6th Avenue. Traditional associations have a way of lingering long after the new generation has taken over.

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As if by magic, the railroad yards of the Boston & Albany have been replaced by the multi-million dollar Prudential Center. It includes a convention hall and hotel, an apartment house development, movie theaters, offices and shops, all surrounded by broad plazas.

Trinity Church, designed by Boston architect H. H. Richardson in 1877, once dominated Copley Square. Now it is dwarfed by the all-glass home office of the John Hancock Insurance Company, whose windows have blown in and out until recently. It towers like a giant icicle. The Copley Plaza stands in the place of Boston’s first Museum of Fine Arts, built in 1872.

The waterfront, where seagulls cried as they soared above the fishing boats tied up at rotting wharves, has been glamorized almost beyond recognition. In place of the cold storage warehouse and the grubby little flats are spectacular apartments overlooking the harbor. Fascinating shops and restaurants attract thousands to the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. And Waterfront Park lures many to enjoy Boston’s east wind on hot summer days.

Boston has indeed undergone a transformation and a rejuvenation, for better or worse. An old part of the old city has gone. In its place are monumental and imposing buildings, wide plazas and a New Boston.

But sometimes when the fog drifts in from the harbor, it seems as if the ghost of the once impressive Crawford House was there, shrouded in the mist.