Around 8 p.m. on a Friday, the basement of Adams D entryway is almost as eerie as the courtyard outside–the harsh lights above emphasizing the emptiness of the corridors. But a few moments after descending the stairs on the way to E entry, a warmer light from a room off the hallway attracts attention, and a scribbled-on blackboard comes into view: “The Molotov,” it reads, in bright colors and flowery script.
The blackboard is a menu, listing beverages and salads and advertising “explosive flavor” in faded colored chalk: eggplant and arugula, a soy cheese sandwich of the day, tomato bisque, and espresso with flavor shots.
Yellow paint covers the brick and cement walls reflects light through the small room. There is a mini kitchen in the corner, some cabinets underneath the counter, the wooden frame of what must have been more, and a tall white fridge. The ceiling hangs low overhead, a web of tangled piping. Three circular glass tables line the wall next to a longer wooden table; a sofa sits next to a TV on the other side of the room. Someone is working on the couch but only his legs, extended onto the low coffee table in front of him, are visible from behind the wall obscuring his face.
This is the Molotov Café—or what’s left of the student initiative that has been open intermittently over the past two decades. At times a buzzing center for Adams residents, the room today stands somewhat forgotten, save for the occasional groups who gather to watch sports games here, or those who go to study expecting the silence, the emptiness.
The small basement space has been shaped and remolded by students over the years, and its history as a student center extends well into the past even before its role as a café. The room was originally designated for storage space, until Peter M. Sellars ’80 decided to turn it into a theater during his sophomore year in the late ’70s, asking for $25 to make the necessary changes. “I thought he was kidding,” then-Adams House Master Robert J. Kiely said in an email.
But he cleared out the junk, painted it, and called it “Explosives B”—after a sign for a factory that he had found. The theater, showing weekly productions, sat around 30 people on mattresses on the floor, but soon became what Kiely describes as “one of the best, most popular little theaters on campus.” The small theater, described in a 1982 article in The Crimson as a “cramped little room under the pipes, with its black drapes and grilled slits of windows and 25 rickety wooden chairs at most,” hosted plays so successful that students trying to get in lined up on Plympton St. all the way to the Harvard Bookstore.
Later in the decade, the basement space was repainted black, filled with student-made furniture and artwork, and became a VCR room. Screening avant-garde films, the space was renamed the Explosives B Cabaret Telly Lounge & Cafe Gluttony Video Institute, an indication of Adams’ affiliation with creative and unconventional types. Finally, after various reincarnations and renamings, the room’s popularity faded for a couple years in the early ’90s.
MEET ME AT THE MOLOTOV
Explosives B attracted excitement again as the new Molotov Café in 1994 when Rita L. Berardino ’94, a former HoCo chair who wanted to keep her involvement in the House strong even during her final semester at the College, decided to start the business and reuse the space. In its first form, the café sold cookies at only 25 cents apiece, as well as coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for double that price. Berardino baked and brewed with the help of some friends; students worked simply out of interest and were not paid. In a 1994 Crimson article, Berardino described the effort as a “labor of love” born out of a need for the revival of such a social center within the House.
But the café never became a centrally organized effort, and different versions of the Molotov popped up here and there over the years to serve varying needs—it became a space for student gatherings, a spot to hold poetry readings and artistic performances, a hub where student playwrights frequently met. A few years back, a small group of friends re-opened the café for the last time, only concerned with making enough profit to purchase the supplies for their next night of business, and the Molotov officially stopped operating between 2008 and 2009. Its existence, however, has played a visible role in the history of Adams house as a relic of its artsy vibe and culture: One of the many paintings in the houses’ tunnels reads, “Meet me at the Molotov,” and over the years students have done just that, finding solace in the quirky space.
FINDING ITS LEGS
The café’s functioning was simply a matter of finding someone to take the initiative to restart it, according to Antone Martinho III ’13, the Adams HoCo Special Projects Chair, who is spearheading an effort to have the café officially up and running for good. After a HoCo effort last year to get more students to start using the space regularly, Martinho and the rest of HoCo, along with Adams House Allston Burr Resident Dean Sharon L. Howell and Adams Housemasters and staff, decided to make the idea that he explains “has been kicked around the house for the past couple years” a reality.
Right now, Martinho said, “people see it as the café that was, rather than the open space that is.” The new café will look to bring students together again in a fully functional center. “We’re trying to revive the same feeling [of the old Molotov] but to give it something new so that it has a new life,” said Joseph Brancale ’13, an Adams HoCo Chair.
But although the new café will draw on the success of its past, there’s not much of the original Molotov that Martinho plans to keep. The first thing he did when clearing out the space, he explained, was to remove the mannequin legs that hung from the ceiling and window, a mysterious leftover of one of the café’s reiterations.
“It’s not coming back as the Molotov,” said Martinho. He hopes to turn the give the new space a “café-pub feel” that will appeal to a more general public, reshaping it from the prior niche café by repainting it, adding new décor, and even giving it a new name. Also unlike the original café, Martinho hopes to have café employees’ work subsidized through work-study or through the profits of the café itself, another means of ensuring its stability.
This revamped setting will offer an environment conducive to both socializing and quiet study as a community space: “It will be halfway between the quiet of the library and full-on socializing,” Martinho explained. The space will initially sell drinks, small snacks, and pastries, and the team hopes to hold other events, like the House’s Carpe Noctum Stein Club in the space as well.This once again renamed café will restore the Molotov of old soon, he said. “Our tentative goal—don’t hold your breath, but try to hold us to it—is to open it by spring break.”