Arts and Leisure

Scollay Square and Tales From The Crawford House

More than fifty years after their demise, Scollay Square and the Crawford House have taken on a mystique all their own. As one musician put it in describing the city’s erstwhile red light district, it was less dangerous and less fun than people say, but it was still a pretty good time.

Positioned at a nexus between Beacon Hill, the Port and the commercial district, the Square was also a central hub for stagecoaches, trolleys, and subways. It was Boston’s clanging, rattling, rowdy public square where men and women went to blow off steam at the time when America was on the rise.

Hot dog and shoeshine vendors vied for attention with banks, jewelry stores and clothiers during the daytimes. At night, the square offered up a hint of titillation with speakeasies and arcades, theaters and burlesque shows, restaurants and bars.

1948 Fire at the Crawford House (Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Collection)

1948 Fire at the Crawford House (Boston Public Library Leslie Jones Collection)

By the 1940s sailors around the globe spoke in awe of Scollay Square’s reputation for debauchery, and it was often their first stop when they arrived in port. Business travelers, suburbanites and college students flocked to the square for a night of thrills.

No Scollay Square landmark lasted longer or burned brighter than the Crawford House. From its beginnings as one of the finer hotels in Boston, just on edge of the neighborhood, to its final days as a rundown, partially demolished bar and restaurant, the Crawford House was in the thick of the action.

Opened in 1867, by Henry Goodwin and Henry Stumcke, the Crawford House was operated on the European plan – meals were not included and outsiders were welcome at its restaurant, bar and theater.

Henry Goodwin, who would go on to become the long-time proprietor of the Crawford House, was born in New Hampshire. He went to Boston to start a newspaper route, which was exceedingly profitable during the Civil War due to the demand for news. After the war, Goodwin and Stumcke launched a restaurant and the saw the demand for a first-rate hotel. The Crawford House was established at Court and Brattle Streets.

The dining and bar were first rate. Over the years, however, the Crawford morphed into a wilder and eventually seedier version of its old self as Scollay Square became more of a red light district. It was said of Scollay Square hotels in the 1940s through the 1960s that they were the type of places that might have 35 rooms, but they’d have 100s of guests in the course of a day.

The Crawford House punctuated both ends of the Scollay Square heyday, emerging in the post-Civil War 1800s as the square was becoming a bustling business center and finally yielding to the wrecking ball in 1962 as Boston cleared room for what is now known as City Hall Plaza. But between those two dates, what a life it had. Here are a few stories from the Crawford House:

Sally Keith, Queen of the Tassel Tossers ! It’s fitting that any story about the Crawford House begin with a mention of Sally Keith.

For almost 20 years, from the 1940s to the 1960s, Sally Keith was the main draw at the Crawford House. She was an exotic dancer who headlined at the hotel’s Theatrical Bar. Her remarkable act involved tassels: four to be exact. One on each breast and one on each buttock. She had the ability to twirl them in any direction she chose.

Keith’s performances would seem tame by today’s standards, but she was the gold standard by which the dancers of the Square were judged and countless college kids, sailors and city visitors were awed by her act.

Keith also had a number of gifts in addition to her pretty face. She had a natural charisma and a gift for publicity. Sally Keith came to be the face of the Crawford for two decades.

The Elevator – For Better or Worse. In building the Crawford House, the owners sought to build in all the amenities that a modern traveler could want. It advertised hot and cold running water, suites for families and inexpensive single rooms for business travelers. Rooms had dressing alcoves for ladies. It added conference rooms as demand for them grew. And the six-story hotel was fitted with an elevator.

Walt Kelly, in the book What They Never Told You About Boston: Or What They Did That Were Lies, claims that the first passenger elevator in United States was Installed in Crawford House.

The elevator would feature in a sadder chapter of the hotel’s history in 1916 when on September 12, at about 2 in the morning, a guest by the name of Crosby – a large man – boarded the elevator to return to his room. The night watchmen threw the lever to start the elevator but Crosby somehow wound up on the floor – half in and half out of the elevator car. The result was predictably unfortunate, and Crosby’s estate successfully sued the Crawford House for failing to have the night watchman licensed as an elevator operator.

Civil Rights and the Crawford House. The anti-slavery movement has several roots in Scollay Square. The offices of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator were located in the Square. Anti-slavery activist and speaker Sarah Parker Remond’s career got a major boost in the Square when she was refused a seat in the white section of the old Howard Theatre for a show. She sued over her treatment at the theater and won.

During the years of the Underground Railroad, escaped slaves who arrived in the Square could find several safe spots for shelter on their trip to freedom.

The Crawford House had the distinction of being host to Booker T. Washington who started the National Negro Business League in Boston in 1900. His headquarters were at the Crawford House.

Comics Proving Ground. While Burlesque became the main draw, the stage at the Crawford House needed someone to fill it while the dancers were on break or changing costume.

The list of comedians who worked at the theater include some who became household names in the age of television. Frank Fontaine (of the Jackie Gleason show) was a regular. Jack Soo (of Barney Miller fame) performed there, as did Larry Storch (of F Troop). Alan King and Don Rickles also did shows at the Crawford House.

The novelist Jean Stafford and the date she never forgot. In 1937, author Jean Stafford had a date at the Crawford House that she never forgot. Stafford went to the hotel for the entertainment shortly after Christmas with her future husband Robert Lowell, the Brahmin poet. On their way home Lowell, unstable at the best of times, wrecked their car. Jean awoke in a hospital with a stitched-together, mashed face.

Following her miserable marriage to Lowell, who Stafford described as “an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer- poet,” Stafford would draw on that night for the plot of her short story The Interior Castle. In the story, 25-year-old Pansy Vanneman wrestled with recovering from injuries to her face that occurred in a car accident.

The Fire of ‘48. 1948 almost spelled the end of the Crawford House. The City of Boston was still shocked by the tragic fire at the upscale nightclub Cocoanut Grove.

When news rippled through the city that a fire had broken out at the Grove’s down-on-its-heels cousin, the Crawford House, firefighters and police held their breath, fearing another disaster in the making.

Their fears were put to rest when the fire turned out to be relatively minor. Yet it fueled one last Sally Keith headline for a clever newspaper editor. Keith had moved from the Crawford, where she was the mainstay entertainer, but her wardrobe was still there.

Panicked, Keith barged through the lobby as the fire was being controlled. She demanded to see her apartment. She had, she told the firefighters, $100,000 worth of wardrobe in the building — furs, jewelry and designer clothes.

That story inspired the headline: Sally Keith Grinds Her Way Into Blaze, Bumps Fireman.

The hotel was robbed — many times. Scollay Square had a rough reputation for a reason. Sally Keith figured in another Crawford House story in 1948. Her suite was robbed and she was bound by the burglars who made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of furs and jewels. The break-in was front page news in Boston, and it prompted Keith to move from the hotel. Her new home was at the ill-fated Hotel Vendome.

Keith’s run-in with robbers at the Crawford House wouldn’t be the last time it was robbed. By the 1950s the hotel was such a frequent target the owners had a special tear gas dispenser placed in the safe so that anyone who broke it open would be doused with tear gas. In 1954 burglars tested the system and were drenched for their trouble. Nevertheless, they got away with $2,000.

In 1961 the hotel was held up once again and the desk clerk was tied up and gagged. The hotel lost more than $9,000 that time.

Following the fire of 1948, the Crawford House limped along, mainly as a theater and restaurant. In 1962, along with the rest of Scollay Square, it was demolished to make way for urban renewal.

Thanks to:

Always Something Doing, Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square by David Kruh

Stranger’s Illustrated Guide to Boston and Its Suburbs

A half century of Boston’s Buildings by Charles Damrell

Much Ado About Me by Fred Alan

The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford by Ann Hulbert




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