Suffolk’s commitment to the Modern Theatre and the restoration project is inspired, in part, by the Modern’s history of innovation.
In 1876, four years after the Great Boston Fire destroyed the nearby business district, Architect Levi Newcomb designed the original building on the Modern Theatre site in the French Renaissance style.
It housed showrooms and warehouse space for the Dobson Brothers, the largest carpet manufacturers in the United States.
Conversion to Movie House
In 1913, when motion pictures began moving from makeshift nickelodeons to theaters, the first three floors of the Dobson Building were converted into the Modern Theatre, the first Boston theater designed specifically to show films using this new technology.
Admission was 15 cents, and musical accompaniment was provided on an Estey Organ designed specifically for use in the theater. Acoustics in the space were designed by Wallace Sabine who also consulted for Symphony Hall.
Clarence Blackall was the architect for the Modern Theatre conversion. His firm also designed 17 other theaters in Boston, including the surviving Colonial, Wilbur and Metropolitan, now known as the City Performing Arts Center. Blackall also designed the first steel frame skyscraper in Boston, the Winthrop building, also on Washington Street.
In 1928 the Modern Theatre, equipped with the latest technology, premiered The Jazz Singer as the first "talkie" in Boston.
It later introduced the double feature in an effort to compete with newer theaters showing movies and vaudeville together.
The Modern Theatre was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as part of the Washington Street Theatre District. In 1995 it was designated a Boston Landmark.
It was used as a theater of some kind continuously until the 1980s, when it fell out of use.
The intervening years took their toll on the structure, and the interior was considered beyond repair when Suffolk University stepped in to save the historic facade and redevelop the site for student housing and a new performance space.
The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University is a recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2011 Preservation Honor Award for contributions to the Lower Washington Street Revitalization in Boston.
The Restoration Project
Suffolk University began work on its new Modern Theatre residence hall and theatre in 2008. The façade of the historic building was taken apart stone by stone and sent to a masonry restoration expert before the remainder of the structure was torn down. The backs of the several thousand stones removed were marked so they could be put back in their proper places. The residence hall and theatre are now contained in a completely new building, with a fully restored façade that will last another 100 years. The building contains a 185-seat state-of-the-art theatre and a 197-bed student residence hall.
Just before the demolition of the interior of the Modern, historic preservationists evaluated which architectural features of the original design were worth saving. While most of these were left to us in fragments, a 22-foot decorative scrim survived in one piece. Originally conceived as a decorative covering for a large acoustic hole built into the proscenium of the theatre, the unnamed artist incorporated architectural features that may be seen in early photographs of the interior. Under the direction of CBT Architects, Bob Shure of Skylight Studio removed and restored the painterly scrim which now hangs in the rear of our lobby – the only decorative feature of the interior to survive nearly 100 years of neglect and deterioration.
The John Lee Beatty Murals
In order to bring greater depth, theatricality, and a sense of history to the interior design, we commissioned John Lee Beatty, one of Broadway’s most respected and prolific designers, to create original murals for the stage house walls. If you look closely, many of the design elements in the murals are Beatty’s modernizations of some of the most distinctive features from the original façade and interior design.
The murals were produced at EverGreene Studios in New York. Although the design was generated with the help of state-of-the-art computer technology, all of the surfaces were over-painted by John Lee Beatty himself.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame, John Lee Beatty has designed dozens of plays on and off Broadway, has been hailed by New York’s most important critics, and has been the recipient of numerous design awards.
Architects worked with the University to design a building that is environmentally sustainable. The project is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, employing “green” design across all phases of design, construction and use. The residence hall, which opened in January 2010, won a LEED Gold award, one of just a handful of student residence halls in Massachusetts that have received this distinction.
This is not Suffolk University’s first project to use building materials recycled from a construction site. As the Beacon Hill campus was being built in the 1920s, a building at 51 Temple Street was demolished, and the University made a deal with the demolition company to leave the brick behind. Work crews cleaned the nearly 150,000 bricks and used them in constructing a new building. Today Suffolk University works diligently to find creative solutions to environmental challenges.