J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Old Corner Burrito Shop

The four-story brick building at the center of this photo was built around 1712 as an apothecary’s shop. It sits on land owned decades earlier by William and Anne Hutchinson. In the mid-1800s, it became the Old Corner Bookstore and headquarters for the important Boston publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields.

The building was put onto the Freedom Trail, but its function has varied. For a long time it was the Globe Corner Bookstore, more recently a jeweler. According to yesterday’s Boston Globe, a Chipotle Mexican Grill just signed a lease to move in. Presumably the lease will have stringent requirements on preserving the building’s historic structure. But the historical message is that Boston’s commerce keeps evolving.

Faneuil Hall was built to have market stalls underneath its meeting-space, and the Old State House was a commercial building for decades after the state government moved to Beacon Hill. Paul Revere ran his businesses out of his North End house. [CORRECTION: Although that house has had commercial uses, Charles Bahne reminds me that Revere had a shop a short distance away where he did most of his work, even the dentistry.] The Globe reports that this building was a pizza restaurant selling slices shortly before its current owner, Historic Boston, Inc., bought it to restore in 1960.

It would be nice if the Old Corner Bookstore could survive as, you know, a bookstore, but that business is evolving faster than most. The big Borders bookstore across the street is said to be closing, a victim of the parent company’s financial problems. (That particular outlet is thought to be profitable.) Around the corner, Commonwealth Books under the Old South Meeting-House offers a fine selection of used books. Maybe one day the business of publishing or bookselling will be steady enough to justify renting such prime real estate. For now, at least it won’t be an empty building.

In Lewiston, New York, I saw a building erected in 1824 used as a McDonald’s. In Oxford, England, I like to visit a restaurant old enough to preserve wall paintings from Shakespeare’s time; it now functions as an upscale pizzeria. While it can seem funny to see historic structures used that way, that’s usually better than having empty buildings in the center of the city.

10 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

You've kind of reminded me of something interesting about moving East as I did.

In California, anything more than 75 years old is considered historical. There are the Missions, of course, which are much older, but for the most part, the real historical buildings are from the 30s (and a few from the 1890s).

Here in New England, we have all sort of historical sites and buildings from the early to mid 18th century, and a few even older.

Then you go to Europe, or the Middle East, or Asia....

Charles Bahne said...

From pizza shop (1960) to burrito shop (2011) -- just shows how tastes change, including culinary ones.

What's unmentioned here is the role that the Boston Globe, under the ownership of the Taylor family, played in the restoration of the Old Corner. Not only did the Taylors put up a significant amount of the money needed to buy the building and restore it in 1960, they also continued to rent space in the building until 2004. It wasn't until the last of the Taylors were gone, and the New York Times owned the Globe, that the newspaper moved out. Of course, newspapers seem to be another dying breed.

Fifty years ago, historians argued that the pizza shop was degrading this historic building, which is why they had to step in and restore it.

At least the structure is, and will continue to be, owned by a nonprofit preservation organization, so suitable restrictive covenants should be in place. And the billboards that once defaced the exterior of the building probably won't be allowed this time.

As I understand, Historic Boston, the building's owner, intends to use rental income from the property as a revenue stream to finance their preservation efforts elsewhere in the city.

J. L. Bell said...

This building makes an interesting contrast with the one that houses the Union Oyster House. That structure is also pre-Revolutionary. As the home of Isaiah Thomas, Hopestill Capen, and (briefly) Benjamin Thompson, it has more Revolutionary significance. Yet it’s not on the Freedom Trail because since the early 1800s it’s been an oyster bar—the fast food restaurant of that day.

J. L. Bell said...

The same way you found a big contrast when you moved east, Robert, is how I felt when I visited Europe for the first time. We cherish seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings as the oldest stuff around. In London and other parts of Britain, they have so many of those they don’t know what to do with ’em.

Joan Quigley said...

I am not happy about it becoming a restaurant but if the outside stays the same and it doesn't get burned down I'll be happy.

Charles Bahne said...

Although the Union Oyster House is not an official site on the Freedom Trail, the trail's red brick line passes by the front door of the Oyster House, and the family that owns the restaurant has been a major donor to the Freedom Trail Foundation, in exchange for advertising. And they have a room, often rented out for functions, called the Freedom Trail Room.

The question of what is, and is not, an official Freedom Trail site, has often been an issue over the years; and the Trail's routing has also been a subject of contention. Many businesses have tried to get the Trail redirected past their door, in anticipation of increased foot traffic.

RFuller said...

We might not like the fast food, and we might pooh-pooh the plebeian tastes associated with it, but let us not forget that some big companies, as part of being good citizens -and getting a tax break- will sometimes help pay for the restoration of the historic buildings they put their restaurants in.

I am thinking of the McDonald's in the center of Freiburg, Germany which paid for some of the restoration of the famous medieval gate Martinstor (Martin's gate), one of the last remnants of Freiburg's medieval walls,in return for getting a very good long-term lease.

As part of the agreement, Mcdonalds got permission to put their name (but not the Golden Arches...) on the lower part of the gate. It's too bad there's a Micky D sign on the gate, but there's always been some sort of advertising sign on the gate.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-lyyZxcWfgQE/TZ0SecDQ80I/AAAAAAAAAi8/ylgtPrh5OnY/s1600/P1030999.jpg

By the late 1970s, the donwntown of Freiburg was in pretty dire shape. Before that, the area where the McDonalds sign is now, had been used as the town jail , as well as advertising (in the same spot on the arch) for local businesses, such as dry cleaning and hotels, and it looked pretty seedy.

In short, until McDonalds came in, the area was a dump. How do I know this? I lived there when the restoration of the area was completed. So, sometimes, public-private partnerships do pay off, even if not quite in the way we'd expect.

G. Lovely said...

20 years ago sitting in a bustling pizzeria in Venice incongruously called Bora-Bora being served great food by Hawaiian-shirted waiters and looking across the narrow alley to an empty restaurant with a group of bored traditionally clad waiters inside, I learned a very important, if obvious, fact, businesses, and by extension, cities, that can adapt thrive, those that don't, are doomed.

Jan said...

I was fascinated to hear the latest news about that location. For two years, I managed the Globe Corner Bookstore that occupied that location, selling books, maps, and various ephemera related to either New England history or world travel. The GCB later moved to Harvard Square and (so I've read) was slated to close last month. I still remember my colleagues there fondly: Pat, Mark, George, Joanna, Joan, and Tony. It was a privilege to work for a while in one of Boston's historic buildings.

Reusing old buildings for eateries is hardly unusual, even on that street alone. When I worked on School Street, the old city hall (built in the 1860s), up the block, served as the home of Maison Robert, a very swanky French restaurant. That too, I gather, has been replaced, in this case by a steakhouse. Plus sa change, plus sa meme chose.

Winston Stone said...

Pity it should be one the historic sites about it's hey day as a publishing house as part of the Freedom Trail. I work for the Globe out of that building from 1970 to 1981. In side wer first editions of Hawthorne, Thoreau and Longfellow. A bango clock by Willard, unfortunately we found it stolen one morning. I was mentioning it to my fellow tour guide last Sunday and he told me that the lease was some absorbitant amount. A book store would be hard pressed to afford. Chipotle being franchise would be the only type of business that could afford it. Let us hope the they don't muck with the building too much.