Hibernian Hall, Reinvented

By Toni Waterman

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Mar. 17, 2011
A speaker, Derek, talks at a Heart of the Hub event in October 2009. (via Flickr)

BOSTON — Dudley Square’s Hibernian Hall isn’t your grandma’s Irish Dance Hall anymore.
 
Built in 1913, the Hall has a storied past. It first served as the anchor of Boston’s Irish community, boasting five dance troupes performing five nights a week. In the 70s, it was transformed into a job-training center. But then, the building was abandoned, sitting vacant for decades until Madison Parks Development bought it in 2000.
 
These days, it boasts an eclectic fusion of poetry, contemporary dance and music – and is helping draw  new patrons and businesses to Roxbury’s historic square.

Hibernian Hall during a fundraiser for JFK in 1957.

“It did require substantial rehab, especially on the 3rd floor in order to bring back the ballroom to its current state of beauty,” said Madison Parks Deputy Director Jennifer Hawkins.
 
The $6.7 million gut renovation took five years. Hawkins says the goal was to create a mixed-use building that would spur an economic and cultural revival in the long neglected Dudley Square neighborhood. About three-quarters of the building is set aside for office space.
 
“By having all these businesses in here, we bring employees to the neighborhood. They go out to lunch and it helps create a vibrant neighborhood,” says Hawkins.
 
By night, the gem of the building -- the 3rd floor – is buzzing with a diverse mix of music, dinning and art. It’s the home of the Roxbury Center for Arts. Director Dillon Bustin has done the programming for the past year.

An exterior view of Hibernian Hall in Roxbury's Dudley Square.

“We usually have one big theatre weekend a month and then usually three or four related events. We have a film series, we have Tuesday night poetry circle,” Bustin said.
 
And on Thursday nights, Bustin has started a supper club, transforming the expansive ballroom into a cozy nightclub called Café Tatant, where guests can enjoy dinner and a live show.
 
The big idea here, Bustin says, is bringing that kind of entertainment back to Boston proper.
 
“ People here, when they want to go out and hear good jazz and have good food they tend to go to the other side of the River, to Cambridge, and we’re trying to develop a place that’s more local, where they can have that kind of experience here,” Bustin said.
 
So far it’s working. Bustin says the show not only attract Roxbury locals, but have been drawing audiences from all over. “I’d say at least a third tend to be from Cambridge, Somerville, Medford and the outlying suburbs,” Bustin said.

Gov. Patrick visits Hibernian Hall during a clothing drive. (officeofthegovernor/Flickr)

That’s good news for Hawkins, who says the building is becoming the economic and cultural landmark Madison Parks was aiming for five years ago, albeit at a slow pace.

“We know that if it wasn’t for us, there wouldn’t be people coming on the weekends, in the evening, to Dudley Square. So we know that we were ahead of the curve in that way, so we’re still looking for other people to grab our coattails,” Bustin said.

And they are. A plot of land across the street from the Hall is slated to become a 25-unit housing complex. And earlier this month, Mayor Thomas M. Menino proposed moving the Boston School Department headquarters to the long-abandoned and boarded-up Ferdinand Building.
 
“It’s very difficult to measure the impact that this building has on the economic development of the neighborhood, but we know that at night, when you look down the street, the lights that are on are our building,” Hawkins said.
 

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