For most Boston residents, the city’s notorious Combat Zone is a distant memory. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, this seedy red light district bordering Chinatown was a haven for prostitutes, X-rated movie houses, and drug dealers. But in recent years, the area has been cleaned up and gentrified, with the adult theaters and peep shows replaced by upscale restaurants and luxury apartments.
In the midst of this colorful neighborhood stands a largely forgotten architectural gem, the Hayden Building, designed by renowned 19th century architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Built in 1875 by Richardson for his wife’s family (the Haydens), the building replaced a former drugstore on the site that had been leveled by an explosion. Richardson constructed the building using the same type of red sandstone he employed when building Boston’s Trinity Church in Copley Square. The building has been the site of many different establishments over the years, including a tailor shop, dentist office, and an army/navy store. The building is also one of only ten commercial buildings designed by Richardson (including his famed Marshall Field Building in Chicago) and is the last remaining Richardson designed commercial building in Boston. In 1980, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hayden enjoyed a long period as one of Boston’s preeminent buildings. However, with the demolition of the city’s burlesque establishments in Scollay Square during the early 1960s urban renewal phase, Boston’s “entertainment” district shifted to the Washington Street area around the Hayden. As a result, the Hayden began serving a decidedly different clientele than Richardson likely ever envisioned when he designed the building. By the late 1970s, the Hayden housed an adult movie theater on its lower floors, making it probably the only porn palace in the country designed by a world renowned 19th century architect. In addition, the upper floors were home to a gay bathhouse. Not surprisingly, things didn’t go well for the building. In the mid-1980’s a fire gutted the building’s upper floors and the Hayden seemed destined for the wrecking ball. In 1990, American Heritage magazine named the Hayden one of the twelve greatest American buildings in risk of demolition.
In 1993, the Hayden was saved when Historic Boston Incorporated (HBI), a non-profit organization that acquires and restores historic and culturally significant buildings in the city bought the property. Among the debris left behind in the Hayden when HBI took ownership of the property were several dusty reels of pornographic films and handwritten signs about what to do in the event of a police raid. HBI held the property for nearly twenty years until it was able to obtain sufficient financing to restore and renovate it. In 2013, the renovations were completed and the Hayden now houses luxury rental apartments. But, notwithstanding the building’s and the neighborhood’s recent revitalization, the Hayden has not quite been able to escape its tawdry past. The Hayden’s next door neighbors on LaGrange Street are the only two strip clubs left in Boston; the last remaining vestiges of the old “Combat Zone.”