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Modern Theatre, long vacant, to house students

The Modern Theatre on Washington Street, where movies with sound were first shown in Boston, is going to become student housing for Suffolk University.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority yesterday approved Suffolk's plan for a $35 million renovation that will preserve the Modern's distinctive High Victorian and Gothic facade with its arching entrance, while erecting a modern 12-story tower with 180 to 200 beds above.

"We're excited about restoring a little bit of Boston's history to the Midtown Cultural District, as well as providing much-needed dorm space," said John A. Nucci, Suffolk's vice president for government and community affairs. "The building has been sitting idle and an eyesore for many years."

When completed, it will also house a ground floor "black box" performance space with 300 to 400 seats.

The 1876 building, first used as a furniture store and turned into a "talkie" cinema just as Al Jolson brought sound to American movies in "The Jazz Singer" in 1928, is adjacent to 10 West St., which Suffolk also bought and is renovating for dorm space.

"Doing the Modern will make West Street a more efficient building," Nucci said.

Together, the two new dorms will have more than 450 beds, which added to those in Suffolk's two existing dorm buildings will mean that more than 16 percent of its students are in campus housing.

Suffolk's goal is 50 percent; it had planned to add 500 or more beds in a dorm on Somerset Street on Beacon Hill in a former government building. However, after initially supporting the project, City Hall last year nixed that plan after hearing concerns from neighborhood residents fearful of student misbehavior.

Suffolk moved quickly to buy a condo project that was in the making at 10 West, and the university was the sole bidder for the city-owned Modern Theatre, at $2.7 million.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a news release that preserving historic theaters has been a priority of his administration. "Restoring the Modern is the last piece," he said.

The nearby Opera House reopened in 2004 after a $31 million renovation, and the Paramount Theatre, also a few doors from the Modern, is being renovated by Emerson College.

The Modern Theatre building, designed by architect Levi Newcomb and designated as a Boston landmark in 2002, originally housed two storefronts where furniture and carpets were sold and stored. In 1913, it became a movie theater and - unlike vaudeville theaters converted to show movies - did not have a stage.

It was later renamed the Mayflower Theater, and in the 1970s adult movies were shown there, on the edge of the district known as the Combat Zone. The seven-story building, on a 10th of an acre, has been vacant for about 20 years.

CBT Architects of Boston will design the tower, and Preservation Technology Consultants will advise Suffolk on restoration.

Nucci said Suffolk hopes to relocate its New England School of Art & Design, currently in leased space on Arlington Street, to 20 Somerset St. The idea "has been very well received by the community," he said.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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