Some History Behind the Buildings of the Boston Center for the Arts

The Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) occupies several South End buildings on Tremont Street between Clarendon and Berkeley Streets. Some are historic and some are newer. Before these buildings became part of the BCA, they housed various businesses. I’ve been thinking about the BCA a lot lately because we just held our Spring Soiree fundraiser there on May 11th. No matter how many times I go into the Cyclorama, I’m always awed by the design and history of the building. The following information is taken from a guide written by our (the SEHS) founding president and long-time historian, Richard O. Card, and kept in our collections at the SEHS.

“The kiosk [outside of the Cyclorama building]…was once the cupola on the Home of the Angel Guardian (designed by Gridley J. F. Bryant) in Roxbury. It was salvaged when that building was demolished in the early 1970s.

Advertisement for the George Frost Company.
From the SEHS collections

The leftmost of the buildings [the one closest to Clarendon St. that is the home of Hamersley’s Bistro and the Beehive today]…was built in 1865 by Samuel and Henry Smith. Here they manufactured the Smith American Organ for nearly forty years…Their cases were assembled in a second building, located at 615 Albany Street, which was then near the lumber wharves along the South Bay. The Smiths also tried, less successfully, to manufacture pianos. The main building originally had another floor, with a mansard roof, but it was never restored after an 1885 fire. In 1892 the building was bought by the George Frost Company, which in 1906 extended it at the rear and came to employ some 400 people in the manufacture of the Gentleman’s Boston Garter and the Velvet Grip Hose Supporter for ladies. This company remained until the 1940s, when the building came to be used by florists associated with the nearby flower market. Since 1970…this has been a part of the BCA.

Behind…[this] building until 1990 stood the Pennock Building, an…early 20th-century garage, used for some years by the Boston Ballet and Boston Ballet School, as well as by the Community Music Center of Boston. This building was demolished to allow construction of the new home of the Boston Ballet on the site, completed in the summer of 1991.

Pennock Building, 1972 image from the SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this
image without SEHS consent.

…Next store to the Smith Organ factory [to the right of the Smith Organ building, if you look at it from Tremont Street], in 1877, was erected the Moody and Sankey Tabernacle. This building was considered ‘temporary,’ and stood only for about a year, but it was built of brick and iron and designed to seat 6,000 people. Dwight L. Moody, the renowned preacher, conducted revival meetings here twice a day for four months in the spring of 1877. Boston newspapers…printed his sermons as front page news. Ira Sankey was the featured vocal soloist. The revivals created such a sensation that special trains were run into the city to accommodate the crowds. Since horsecars were running regularly down Tremont Street by this time, it was easy to get here from one of the numerous Boston railroad stations.

On the same site, in 1884, rose the Gettysburg Cyclorama building. The great round structure, which originally had two towers flanking its Tremont Street entrance, was designed by Cummings and Sears…Its sole purpose was to display a great painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, 400 feet long and 50 feet high, by the French panorama painter Paul Philippoteaux. This painting was the twin of a Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg already done by Philippoteaux for Willoughby and associates in Chicago. The Boston painting, somewhat cut down, is now displayed by the National Park Service in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania…Two later versions [were] done by Philippoteaux for Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

One entered the Cyclorama building from Tremont Street and then climbed a circular staircase to the viewing platform, there to be completely surrounded by the painting, which was hung from a track…along the wall of the circular building. Between the painting and the viewer…[were] mounds of actual dirt, trees, cannons, fences, pieces of uniforms, wagon wheels, stacked rifles, and remnants of campfires. The effect was to make it difficult to tell where real objects ended and the painting began. A canvas sky concealed the windows that lighted the painting from above. You were made to feel that you were actually standing on Cemetery Ridge, looking forty miles in every direction, and watching Pickett’s Confederate troops make their futile charge–all for only $0.50 admission.

Cyclorama in the 1890s when it served as the home to Waverley Bicycles, image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent.

…Proprietors of the Gettysburg Cyclorama building…took down its original painting and exhibited other cycloramas depicting such diverse subjects as Custer’s Last Fight, Jerusalem, the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea…, and something advertised as Napoleon in Hell. After use for roller skating, rough riding displays, and a Spanish American War fair, the building was turned into a garage…For this Tremont Garage the two towers were removed and the squared-off extension constructed along Tremont Street. In 1906 French bicycle racer Albert Champion rented space here, where he developed the A.C. Spark Plug. He moved in 1908 to a larger factory in Roxbury and eventually merged with General Motors. The new larger factory building was large enough that it could house many different operations at once, as well as equipment such as platforms, folding ladders, and more.

As for the original building, in 1922 the building was sold to the Boston Flower Exchange, Inc., which made it the center for the wholesale florist business of the region for nearly a half century. In 1970, [after]… a new flower exchange was built on Albany Street, the newly formed Boston Center for the Arts…was designated as the developer of this old building and several adjacent ones.

Cyclorama in 1972 (note the top of the original Cyclorama dome peeking out above the main facade).
Image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent.

National Theater in 1972. Image from SEHS collections.
Do not reproduce, copy, or disseminate this image without SEHS consent.

…To the right of the Cyclorama building [was]…the National Theater, designed by Clarence Blackall and built in 1911. At that time it was supposedly the largest vaudeville house in the world. Its 3,500 seats allowed the prices to be kept very low…On the night of the theater opening, September 18, 1911, the overflow crowd quite literally broke the doors in. Bostonians listened to Irving Berlin’s very first hit song, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ and made the orchestra play it over and over…

Gradually vaudeville declined and the theater came to be devoted exclusively to motion pictures. Then, in the era of television, the movies themselves began to decline. E.M. Loew continued to run the National as a movie house until the night before the Boston Center for the Arts took it over in 1973. For a time after that it was used by the BCA…but it [was torn down in 1996. Today the Calderwood Pavilion stands in the National’s former location].

To the right of the [National Theater]…stood the Hotel Clarendon, an establishment managed for a long time by boxing legend John L. Sullivan. This hotel was destroyed by fire in 1969. The Odd Fellows Hall, an ornate Gothic white granite building built in 1871-1872, formerly occupied the entire corner space beyond that, but it too was destroyed by a…fire early in 1932.” [Atelier 505 occupies the site today].

Odd Fellows Hall, Berkeley Street facade. This image belongs to the Boston Public Library and may not be reproduced without their consent.
The Berkeley Street side of Odd Fellows Hall. 1932 fire. This image belongs to the Boston
Public Library and may not be reproduced without their consent.