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Historic Chinatown building, once an adult theater, will be reborn as housing

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 2, 2011 05:46 PM

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(Boston Redevelopment Authority/Jeremy C. Fox for

The Hayden Building in 1977 and today. In the first photo, taken by Bob Stanton for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the building was in use as an adult movie house and had begun to fall into disrepair.

A long-empty historic building in the former Combat Zone adult entertainment district will soon see new life as apartments intended for hip downtown residents.

Historic Boston Incorporated announced on Wednesday that they have selected an architecture firm — South Boston-based CUBE Research and Design — for the renovation of the upper floors of the Hayden Building at 681 Washington St. in Chinatown.

Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of HBI, said the firm stood out because of the young architects’ “fresh approach to historic preservation.” Preliminary estimates put the cost of renovations at about $2.6 million.

Built in 1885, the Hayden Building was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, a leading American architect of the 19th century who also designed Trinity Church in Copley Square as well as Sever and Austin halls at Harvard University, his alma mater. Richardson designed the building as a favor to his father-in-law, Dr. John Cole Hayden, and it is his only remaining commercial structure in Boston.

It was designated a Boston landmark in 1977 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, but it continued to be used as an adult movie house through the waning days of the Combat Zone. Even today, its immediate neighbors to the rear are Centerfolds and the Glass Slipper, Boston’s only remaining strip clubs.

HBI bought the building in 1993 and made extensive repairs to the exterior as well as stabilizing the whole structure, which had begun to tilt.

“HBI … purchased it when it was in very bad shape — you could see through the roof of the building and everything was exposed to the elements,” Kottaridis said. “So we borrowed against other properties; we did everything we could to sort of come in and do what we do best, which is save an at-risk historic building.”

When the organization took over the property, it found much evidence of its former life, including dozens of reels of pornographic films and handwritten signs indicating what to do in case of a police raid.

After some cleanup, HBI was able to lease the first floor as a Liberty Bank branch for several years, until the firm merged with General Bank and closed the branch. But they were long unable to afford the massive repairs needed on the upper four floors, which had been damaged by fire and water, as well as many years of neglect.

A non-profit historic preservation advocate and developer, HBI was founded 50 years ago to save the Old Corner Bookstore at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown and has since helped preserve historic properties in neighborhoods all over the city.

With most of the properties it buys, the organization makes the necessary restorations and improvements and then seeks a buyer who will maintain the building’s historic integrity so it can free up the funds to put into other projects.

“We’re not very curatorial,” Kottaridis said. “We want to do right by the buildings and abide by very excellent standards, but we want buildings to work for their current environments; we want them to work for the people who live here and now and need them for certain uses.”

Kottaridis said the original plan was to sell the Hayden Building, but it has now been in HBI’s hands for 18 years, and the organization plans to retain ownership for the foreseeable future. It will act as a landlord for the four apartments and the first-floor retail space, but Kottaridis said they plan to sell the building next door that houses Penang Malaysian Cuisine.

“We have never really felt like our job was done because we never activated the upper floors,” she said. “It was too expensive for a very long time, and I think the only reason we can do it now is because we’re selling the non-historic building next door and are able to reinvest in this building, and also that we have the inherent value of the ownership of the building debt-free.”

Kottaridis said that sale will fund much of the work, with help from small construction loans and as much as 40 percent in tax credits for historic preservation. Once the building is completed, HBI hopes it will be a steady source of income that will support their efforts on other buildings, as the Old Corner Bookstore has been.

The footprint of the building is around 1,000 square feet, and Kottaridis expects that each of the upper four floors will contain a single two-bedroom apartment, which will rent at market rate. HBI hopes to begin construction by this fall, if they can get all the necessary permits in time.

For a gallery of photos from the Hayden Building, click here.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at

Kathy 1.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for

Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston Incorporated, shows off the sunny second floor of the building, where a series of K-braces was added during the mid-1990s to stabilize the building.

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