Boston's colonial leaders once called Downtown Boston home, and the district's residents traded on the wharves and in shops leading from the waterfront. The seat of government was the Old State House at the head of State Street. The main freshwater source for the area gave Spring Lane its name.
Much of downtown's street pattern dates from the 17th century. Contrary to legend, cows did not lay out Boston streets, although many of the streets between Washington and Tremont were once cow paths leading to the Common. Today's Washington Street was the main road in colonial Boston and was lined with buildings at an early date.
By the mid-19th century, the semi-rural area around Washington Street was adapted to commercial uses. The Great Fire of November 1872 destroyed more than 500 buildings in a 65-acre area. Property owners reconstructed the district within several years, often rebuilding in Victorian-era styles. Because the fire stopped at Washington Street, a number of so-called "pre-fire" buildings survive in the blocks between Washington and Tremont streets, such as the Old South Meeting House.
By the late 19th century, early skyscrapers began to make their appearance in Downtown Crossing as retail establishments evolved into major department stores and financial institutions moved beyond their traditional homes in the Post Office Square area.
The turn of the century saw the growth of the theater district that had been concentrated in the area of lower Washington and Tremont streets beginning around 1836. Movie palaces, ornate purveyors of motion pictures, came onto the scene in the 1920s. By 1935, downtown Boston had 40 theaters. Six of them shared the lower Washington Street block that now features the Boston Opera House, Modern Theatre, and Paramount Center. These three restored theater gems offer almost-nightly live performances, films, and dance.
*Information provided by the Boston Preservation Alliance