History

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.

Architect’s specialty

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.

First talkie

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.

Historic designation

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.