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Answer: Yes. There is a largely forgotten performance hall underground in the center of Boston, and you may well have walked by it. But like many Bostonians, you probably didn’t know it was there, as so few in the city today have ever been inside.
Just take a stroll west along Boylston Street, from the Boylston MBTA station. Boston Common is on your right, and on your left you’ll pass some Emerson College buildings, the Colonial Theatre, some restaurants and shops, until at 162 Boylston St. you’ll see large “Steinway” sign. Look up and left into a recessed stone archway and there's the sign for “Steinert Hall.” That’s the forgotten performance space under Boston that you’ve heard about.
The hall was constructed in 1896. It was built below ground to shield it from the noise of the street. Today it’s closed to the public, but I was fortunate enough to spend a few minutes in the hall recently.
Look up and left into a recessed stone archway and there's the sign for “Steinert Hall.” That’s the forgotten performance space under Boston.
Having just dodged my way across busy Boylston Street only minutes before, I was astonished by how silent Steinert Hall remains, even today. Entering the space I felt a very similar sensation to when I walk into an empty studio here at WBUR. The best way to describe it is to say it feels like the sounds that normally surround you are being pulled away from you, off into the darkness.
I spoke with Paul Murphy, president of M. Steinert & Sons, in his office three floors above the hall. The concert space is 40 feet below street level, he says, meaning it’s below the water table. It’s damp, usually around 60 degrees, some of the staircases are unsafe, and where the water seeps in from above the paint is peeling and some of the plaster is falling down. That’s why, he explains, there is no public access to the hall.
But you can’t miss his enthusiasm when he talks about the space. “I think you could readily hear someone speaking in casual conversation on the stage, anywhere else in the hall,” Murphy told me. “It’s got a beautiful acoustic.”
In the few minutes I had in the hall it wasn't hard to imagine the grandeur of the place a hundred years ago. Behind the damp, the musty smell, and the piles of record boxes and piano parts, the warm colors of the walls, the impressive height of the space and the extraordinary silence give an intriguing hint of what it must have been like.
Among the first to play there in the 1890s was the Polish pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and among the last to play there in the 1940s was Luise Vosgerchian, who would later become the chair of the music department at Harvard University.
After the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942, the hall closed and has remained closed ever since. It’s had a few visitors over the years, including Elton John, who tried out a digital grand there, and the occasional reporter, like this reporter and photographer from the Boston Globe last year.
These days the only visitors to the hall, says Murphy, are Steinert’s staff, looking through old records, and insurance inspectors looking at the damp wooden floors and peeling plaster.
Will it ever be open to the public again? Murphy says Steinert’s has had legitimate offers to develop the hall, as a concert hall, night club or theater in the round, but none of the proposals has ever come to anything.
As he puts it, the dilapidation of the hall and the need for improved access would mean the hall would need to be deconstructed before it could be rebuilt.
“It would really have to be stripped out and done again,” Murphy says. “It really doesn't look like it would be practical to do, unfortunately.”
But he says he wishes it would happen.
It’s still a great naming opportunity, he adds, if you’ve got the money. “I would be glad to name it after you,” he says.