written by bruce irving • photographed by peter vanderwarker places
PARAMOUNT MAKES A COMEBACK • A downtown Boston landmark has its
marquee status restored by Emerson College and Elkus Manfredi Architects
ASK ANY BOSTONIAN OVER 20 about the Combat Zone and you’re likely to hear tales of peep shows, nude dancers, and seedy adult movie houses, all centered on lower Washington
Street. This is where a drunken Wilbur Mills,
then the chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, fueled his political demise
in 1974 by jumping on stage with stripper
Fanne Foxe, “The Argentine Firecracker.”
Before its decline into red-light infamy,
lower Washington Street was the entertain-
ment hub of the Hub. Lined with vaudeville
houses regularly visited by the likes of Charlie
Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Sophie Tucker, and Will
Rogers, the area later benefited from the inter-
studio rivalries of Hollywood’s Golden Age as
movie theater followed movie theater, each
new one trying to outdo the previous one in
elegance and signage.
The last one to go up, in 1932, was grand-est of all, with the biggest sign. It was called,
fittingly, the Paramount — an eye-popping
Art Deco confection of fine woods, elaborate
plaster moldings, and sophisticated colors that
easily filled its 1,700 seats for many years. Then,
in the early 1960s, came the “urban renewal”
razing of nearby Scollay Square. Its red lights
migrated to Washington Street, and the area’s
slow slide began. In 1976, the Paramount
screened its last adult movie (its title lost to history) and closed down.
When representatives of the new owner,
Emerson College, and architects Howard
Elkus and Ross Cameron of Elkus Manfredi
Architects of Boston surveyed the building five
years ago, it was a mold-infested shell. The mezzanine fireplace, built without a flue and purely
decorative, was being used by vagrants for heat.
559 Washington St.
creating an interior showstopper required a well-qualified team.
The decorative painting was done by Evergreene Architectural Arts
in New York. Acoustics, audiovisual, and vibrations consultants
Acentech in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helped design the new
balconies and ornate carved fan that extends over the stage and
acts as an acoustical reflector for unamplified performances.
Auerbach Pollock Friedlander of New York were consultants for
theater, sound, video, and production communications design.