History of the Little Building

Little Building, Boston 

The Little Building was constructed at 80 Boylston Street, originally the site of the Pelham Hotel, between 1915 and 1917. It was named after prominent financier and businessman John Mason Little and was designed by celebrated Boston architect Clarence Blackall. Blackall was well known for designing 14 of Boston’s theaters, including the Colonial and Wilbur theaters.

When the Little Building opened, it was featured in several prominent architectural magazines, including the American Architect and Building News. Its exterior architecture was celebrated as a wonderful example of the Modern Gothic style skyscraper, featuring four pavilions, Tudor arches, gothic trim, and stone spandrels. The interior of the building included a two-story shopping arcade as well as vaulted ceilings. Each store within the arcade not only had its own interior space, but also a storefront with which to advertise its products. Due to these stunning exterior and interior features, architectural historian Walter Muir Whitehill described the Little Building as being “the most glamorous office building of the era of World War I.”[1]

Boasting 600 offices, 37 stores and shops, multiple restaurants, a subway entrance, and interior access to local theaters, the building was called the “City Under One Roof.” Living up to this name, between 1922 and 1925 the proprietors published a newspaper titled the Little Building News. The publication discussed not only national and regional news, but also the goings on of the many businesses and workers in the building. It featured information regarding newly opened stores and employees hired to manage existing establishments, as well as the intricate displays featured in storefronts. It also described the many interactions between the staff of the different offices and shops, including daily afternoon tea gatherings and speed typing contests.

Little Building News

June 1922 issue of Little Building News

Over the years, the Little Building housed many different shops, schools, and offices, including the Nu-Bone Corset Shop, U.S. Printing & Lithograph Company, LaSalle Extension School, and the Radium Chemical Company. Although still functioning as an office building and shopping arcade in the early 1990s, the entire neighborhood was declining and the building itself was under receivership. Luckily, in 1994, the building was purchased by Emerson College and converted into an undergraduate residence hall for 748 students. Emerson retained many of the building’s original interior features, including the arcade storefronts. In order to repair the deteriorating facade and renovate student spaces, the building closed in May and will reopen in Fall 2019.

The Emerson College Archives and Special Collections recently digitized the Little Building News, which you can view here. To learn more, you can also contact us at archives@emerson.edu.

Jenn Williams (Archives)


[1] For more information, you can view the volume Midtown Cultural District: Historic Building Survey, https://archive.org/details/midtownculturald1987bost.