Sunday, March 19, 2017

Brookline Village Coffee Shops & Their Pasts

In one short block in Brookline Village, two international coffee shop chains compete for business in storefronts just three doors apart. The more established Starbucks is at 7 Harvard Street, and the newcomer, Caffé Nero, is at 1 Harvard Square.

Woolworth's interior
Employees in the Brookline Village F.W. Woolworth store (now Starbucks) in 1914
Those retail locations, of course, have a much longer history than either coffee chain and, remarkably, we are able to get a glimpse of what the interiors of both spots looked like more than a century ago. Interior images from that far back are hard to come by. But for these two locations we have views via a newspaper sketch for one and two photographs for the other.

National Bank Building in 1893
National Bank Building in 1893
The older of the two buildings is the one that is now home to the first Brookline location of the London-based Caffé Nero. Designed in 1892 by the firm Hartwell & Richardson, the building, originally known as the Lowe Building, had stores on the ground floor and apartments above. One of the first tenants was the Brookline National Bank and the building soon became known as the National Bank Building.

The bank purchased the building in 1902 and engaged architects Peabody & Stearns to expand and redesign it. They enlarged the third floor by raising the roof eight feet. (It became home to a hall for the Beth-Horon Lodge of Freemasons.) Apartments on the second floor were turned into offices.

On January 1, 1903, the new Brookline Post Office opened on the ground floor, in the space that is now Caffé Nero. The Boston Globe previewed the new post office with the headline “Brookline’s New Year’s Gift from Uncle Sam” and a sketch showing the public space, as well as the redesigned exterior.

Sketch of the interior of the new Brookline Post Office in Brookline Village, now Caffé  Nero. Boston Globe, December 30, 1902
Sketch of the interior of the new Brookline Post Office in Brookline Village, now Caffé  Nero. Boston Globe, December 30, 1902
Mail slot in Caffe Nero women's room doorWhen shown the image, employees at Caffé Nero were intrigued. They also thought it solved a mystery: Why did the door to the women’s bathroom, shown here, have a mail slot in it? (It was probably an interior door reused in later renovations.)

This was to serve as the main Brookline post office, relocated from an inadequate space on Washington Street in the Village, until the construction of a new post office in Coolidge Corner (in space now occupied by Zaftig's deli, Jin's restaurant, and Cool Edge Salon) in 1923. The location that is now Caffé Nero remained the Brookline Village branch of the Post Office until some time after World War II.

7-15 Harvard Street in the early 1980s.
Town of Brookline photo.
The more modest two-story building housing the Brookline Village Starbucks was built in 1911 to house stores and offices. A year later it became home to Brookline’s first F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store, which was to stay in business there for more than three quarters of a century.

Woolworth’s occupied half of the first floor, space now divided between Starbucks and Vizio Optic, until closing in 1989. The Historical Society was lucky to obtain the two photographs below of the interior of that store from another historical society. Sales banners hanging from the ceiling in one of the photographs helped us to date the images to 1914.

The banners advertise a Spring Sale, April 20th to April 25th. Why six days, not seven? Because from Puritan times until 1983 Massachusetts Blue Laws banned Sunday store openings. (April 19th was a Sunday in 1914 and 1926, but the clothing appears a better match for the earlier date.)

Interior of Woolworth's store, Brookline Village, 1914
Two interior views, above and below of the Brookline Village Woolworth's in 1914
Interior of Woolworth's store, Brookline Village, 1914
To explore these photos of the Brookline Village Woolworth’s in more detail, visit supersize versions on the Historical Society website: Image 1 | Image 2

One puzzle: there are skylights clearly visible in the photos. How can that be in a two-story building? Records in the town building department provide the answer: the building was originally only one-story at the back; the second story was added to that part of the building later.

Next time you’re enjoying a coffee or tea or a pastry in either of these Brookline Village coffee shops, be sure to reflect on what had been there more than a century ago.

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