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Little Building has big history

Emerson Today recounts the history of the landmark building at Boylston and Tremont streets - and tells us who Little was.

Historian Walter Muir Whitehill said the Little Building was “the most glamorous office building of the era of World War I.” It was later dubbed the “The City Under One Roof,” as it housed 600 offices, 37 stores, a post office, a restaurant, and underground passageways connecting to the Boylston Street T station and the neighboring Majestic and Plymouth theaters.



The first photograph in the story caught my eye: look how wide the sidewalk is on the Common side of Boylston! The square concrete slabs appear to be original, and in the photograph, from the west corner of the Boylston station to the curb was 8 squares, today it is 6. And then the sidewalk got wider! Back then the sidewalk was 5 squares of concrete wide. Today it is three squares wide.

All to make it easier for someone from New Hampshire to drive in to Downtown Boston, I guess.


All to make it easier for someone from New Hampshire to drive in to Downtown Boston, I guess.

Considering that the overwhelming majority of traffic on most of Boston's streets-including, I suspect, Boylston St-isn't in cars, but on foot, etc.


The auto traffic at the corner in 1920 already looks pretty intense from the photo, and I doubt many of them were driving in from New Hampshire at that time.

Yes, and the beautiful one-way pattern and traffic light timing makes it overwhelmingly easy to drive in this area. /sarcasm

Who exactly is this area optimized for?

Pedestrians are squashed on a tiny sidewalk in front of the Little Building during the endless wait for the all-way walk. Cars face unsynchronized lights, a lack of signs (how are you supposed to know heading east on Boylston at Arlington to take the left roadway to head north on Charles, and the right roadway to continue east?), and a one-way maze if they're not going south or east. So do buses, and they get no priority (I don't count the Essex bus lane since it's now faded away to nothing and barely signed). There's no bike lanes, and not even a wide right lane -- just a curbside traffic lane. And transit riders, oh boy -- the Boylston curve and the signal system combine to make this the worst part of the Green Line by far, with a huge trolley jam during the peak.

Yes, look how wide the sidewalk was on the Common side of Boylston!

Yes, that sidewalk appears to have gotten narrower.
No, it's not because of taking space away from pedestrian traffic for cars.

Take a good look at that old photo. Go to Google maps, turn on satellite, turn on 3D, park your viewpoint on top of the Masonic Temple.
Compare the two.
The road was four cars wide 99 years ago. It's four cars wide now.
Look at the people on the Boylston/Common sidewalk. Gauge it.
The sidewalk got narrower because the Common took away some of the sidewalk from its side. The curb didn't move.
I suspect the original sidewalk went closer to fence line of the burying ground.

The Emerson article mentions that the Little Building had its own newspaper in the 1920s and includes a link to copies of the newspaper. I always knew my great grandfather had an office in the Little Building but the newspaper has information that his brother, as well as my grandfather and his brother also had offices there. There are vacation notices and an article about my grandfathers work for a lumber company. Great stuff.


tax break for college?? that number seems low for such prime real estate?

Well, it was the Combat Zone back then.


You must be new around here, that was known as "the combat zone" back then, and when I moved into the Little Building in 1999 it was across the street from a gay porno theater and you could buy crack from the guy behind the counter at 7/11 around the corner (not even joking about that one, witnessed first hand MANY times). Sirens were regular, gunshots were heard. Hookers and strippers hung around bars like Charlie Flynns (where you could buy stolen goods 7 days a week, while drinking at age 18!) and the Tam.
Walking through that area now you'd never know it was once such a beautiful hellhole.
I once was shown a secret way into the Opera House before it was restored and there were dozens of bums living in there. It was creepy. Never made it to these underground tunnels going to Boylston T stop though. Feel like I missed out on that!

The gay porno theater was the interestingly named Art Cinema. It somehow hung in there for quite a few years after home video put most porn theaters out of business.

It wasn't prime then

Ah, yes! Porno theaters, crack, sirens, gunshots, hookers, strippers, hellhole...

...and that doesn't even mention the really sketchy people like the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind - or the Masons!!! ;-)

i know about the combat zone. that is still a pretty piece of property for 5 million. i also know that the residents of chinatown chased a lot of the riff raff out of their neighborhood when the Zone ceased to exist. they wound up on that corner of the common. lots of weird stuff going on right there 24/7

$5 million in 95 is a lot more in today's dollars. Emerson was once all on the other side of the common, in the "Back Bay" side on Beacon St, Marlborough, etc.
Not sure when, or if it coincided with the purchase of the LB and their library at 120 Boylston (it moved from a brownstone on Beacon), and the Majestic, but they did enter into a deal with the city at some point to get some nice tax breaks/sweatheart land deals in exchange for rehabbing a run down part of the city, including 100 Boylston, which was a giant hole in the ground filled with trash when I got there. It is now a dorm and some TV studios. They rehabbed the Paramount Theater and I want to say pitched in on The Opera House resto as well. Now I'm pretty sure their entire Campus occupies Boylston and Tremont Streets, and the "combat zone" has been relegated to LaGrange st and its strip clubs.
To the comment above, I totally forgot about the Masons! Extra Creepy....I only ever saw anyone coming and going from there once in 3 years.

...well,as a former Charlie Flynn's regular, I never bought stolen goods there.

As a matter of fact, during the time I spent there, I think the waitstaffs from the Blue Diner, Jacob Wirth, and Cecil's were pretty much the only customers who were young enough to run away from the cops if necessary and sober enough to be fencing stolen goods without getting ripped off, and we were pretty much just drinking after our shifts.

Or before, maybe, in a few cases.

I haven't thought of that place in ages! I worked in the area in the 80s and used to go there all the time. It's long forgotten now, but save for the Blue Diner which has been there since year one, Cecil's was the first decent kind of restaurant to open in the so-called "leather district" when it was still a dingy, empty no-man's land. In the early 80s there was literally NOTHING around there. Even the punk Gallery East came and went very quickly.

The story notes that the underground connections to the T stop and adjacent theaters have been blocked off. I wonder if they are still there? The idea of a visiting an abandoned tunnel always gives me goose bumps!

i always used to walk by here and wonder what was still down there. maybe charlie. i think it was the essex st exit??


Northeastern had tunnels connecting all the buildings, it was great in the winter.

The tunnel continues along Tremont St and then it came above ground at the Pleasant St portal. It's now Eliot Norton Park between Tremont St & Charles St. The portal was covered but the tunnels still exist. The flyovers to that tunnel are the reason Boylston Station has 4 tracks: 2 went south, and then 2 take the tight corner to go west along Boylston St.

That's along Washington. Don't know if it's ventilation or emergency exit, but looks like it's connected to Orange Line subway. Appears to be incorporated into the building since built on that lot.

The southbound one is on Lagrange Street next to Centerfolds.

The connection between the LB and Boylston still exists. the entrance is the big metal doors just after the curve. I'm not sure where in the LB they lead though.

The tunnels used to show up on the LB Emergency Evacuation Plans before the renovation. It showed a platform connecting to the basement level where the Emerson Cabaret was. It showed the platform existing on the plans, but I can't remember if it showed any doorways to the platform or if they were all replaced by walls.

The Emerson renovation walled off the access to Boylston station. I remember at the time that they actually had the sidewalk excavated during construction and you could look down into the passageway before they built the wall sealing it off.

I walk by this building most days and celebrated when the construction scaffolding came down in August. The project went quickly but Emerson has had scaffolding around the building since at least 2011, to protect pedestrians from being hit by falling pieces of the building. It is still deeply weird but absolutely wonderful to not have scaffolding constricting that very busy corner. The project came out really well and I was very happy to see they kept the arcade and its murals. My only complaint is that instead of matching the new facade to the light grey color of the ground floor facade (that was being retained), the new facade is a tan color and they stained the original facade to match it. If anyone knows why they did this, I’d be very curious to know the reason. Overall though, the building looks great and the new exterior lighting looks terrific.

I believe the colors used are actually the original colors of the building.

I watched them apply the tan stain to the ground floor facade. Previously, it was the color of its neighboring building on Boylston St. Even the architect’s renderings of how the 2017-2019 project was supposed to look when finished show the light grey color. Something changed course during construction, I just wonder whether it was a mistake made by the fabricator that was too costly to correct or a conscious design change. But again, the restoration came out really well overall so I shouldn’t quibble over the color.

During WWI, the 1st Naval District had offices here. Lots of the women who joined up as Yeoman (F)s would be stationed there to help do the paperwork for men going in and out of the service.

I'm surprised that nowhere in the Emerson Today article, and nowhere in the comments above, has anyone mentioned that the recent project involved the total dismantling of about a third of the Little Building structure. The eastern side of the building, adjoining Tremont Street, was removed entirely, including the steel frame, down to the second floor level. Then it was rebuilt, piece by piece. Presumably at least some of the original fabric was reinstalled. But when I looked at the building a couple of years ago, there was just air where much of the building used to be (and where it would later be again).

Even in the sixties it was still a well kept building. My orthodontist had an office there, before he moved to the suburbs (Wellesley, to be exact, which required a long ride in a car). My mother had a hair stylist who jumped ship from the salon that employed him and opened his own in the Little Building. I recall a busy ground floor just inside the entrance and a coffee shop located on the corner, if I’m not mistaken. So much love for the old buildings of Boston-the wonderful architecture and all the services they contained.

I believe Brigham’s was a tenant at one point too.