Thursday, April 7, 2011

Stuff-We-Find-in-Historic-Buildings #2: On Preservation and Pornography at the Hayden Building

This is the second in an occasional series that chronicles HBI’s growing collection of found items in the historic buildings where we work. We launched this series in February with a focus on the Roxbury Action Program’s years at the historic Alvah Kittredge House. This post looks at Chinatown’s Hayden Building.


When touring partners and colleagues around the Hayden Building, we find that we have a bit of explaining to do when we reach the second floor.  That’s where HBI keeps its porn collection.

Shhhh.  Don’t tell... Yes, you read that right.

You may remember Chinatown’s Lower Washington Street as Boston’s Combat Zone,  filled with peep-show parlors, rowdy bars, ladies “on the stroll” and faded vaudeville theaters screening porn flicks. For those of you who don’t remember how this area was well into the 1980s, then take a gander at this article from the Boston Globe, which describes a raucous, colorful world, clustered around La Grange street and the deteriorated, but still historic, Hayden Building.


That clues you in to the source of HBI’s unique little archive of commercial pornographic films, currently located on the empty second floor of the Hayden Building. According to Stanley Smith, longtime Executive Director of Historic Boston, the reels came from a theatre that was originally called Gordon’s Olympia, built in 1913 by renowned theatre architect Clarence Blackall (who also designed the Wang Theatre, the Colonial Theatre, the Tremont Temple and several other significant buildings in Boston). As the area became seedier, many fine theatres became porn palaces, and the Olympia, which was built for vaudeville, was ironically re-named The Pilgrim, a movie theatre that showed porn. 


We’ll let Stanley describe how he came by the reels in his own words:

“The first tenant we had for the Hayden Building was the contractor who tore down the building cattycorner across the street from the Hayden Building.  That building housed an elegant vaudeville/burlesque theater.  By the time I knew the theater it had become a porn cinema.  At some point I was given a tour of several Washington Street theater buildings.  By the time I took the tour, films were no longer being used: instead they used videos projected from a table in the orchestra section of the multi-tiered theater.
The demolition contractor’s office occupied the ground floor of the Hayden Building.  There was no plumbing, so they put a porta-potty in the rear.  When the contractor’s work finished, they cleaned up their space nicely and left us the 16 millimeter films they had found in the former vaudeville house.”
With titles like “Meter Maids” HBI’s collection has more than 30 titles that mostly date to the 1970s.   In the next few months we will be looking for a new home for these reels, and hope to find an institution that sees the value in preserving this type of film history or pieces related to a section of downtown Boston that is only a shadow of its former self. If you know of any such museum or group, please leave us a note in the comments below.

During those years, the Hayden Building had a peep show parlor called “The Scene” on the first floor (seen in the image of the Hayden Building above) and a gay bathhouse called the Club Baths in the upper stories.  While not much remains from that era, HBI staff did save a sign written on the back of an envelope and taped to the wall from that time.



We hesitate to wax nostalgic about this era of Boston history since the lack of investment through those years left HBI with a $1 million tab when it moved aggressively to save the fire-ravaged, structurally unstable building in 1993.  But so rarely do we preserve recent history, and more rarely do we hear “preservation” and “porn” mentioned in the same sentence. 

The Hayden Building is well preserved and poised to see better --and more wholesome -- days ahead, but it is important to preserve reminders of all our history, even if it’s a little difficult to explain.

5 comments:

  1. Quick search found the Las Vegas Erotic Heritage Museum: http://www.eroticheritagemuseumlasvegas.com/

    It's at least a start, the materials might be something they would appreciate considering its connection to the history of their genre

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  2. Mr. Career OpportunitiesApril 18, 2011 at 4:00 AM

    funny how a simple note, probably written hastily on the back of an envelope, adds such immense color to a period of time

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  3. There a sex-museum in NYC I believe. Why not contact Hugh Hefner? Also HBO has the Reel Sex documentary series they've done. They might be interested in this as a story.

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  4. You could contact the people at the Boston Museum. They don't have a building yet, but maybe they'd be willing to hold onto the materials (it is part of the city's history). Or the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum (again, probably not something they'd want to display in their collection since it is a family friendly museum). I think someone local should be protecting the materials until it finds a permanent home.

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