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The Square's Peg

Inside the Concord Building

By Nicholas Lemann

The Concord Building, where the paint peels off the inside walls and rickety wooden stairways lead to doors that go nowhere, curves around the apex of Harvard Square at Mass Ave and Boylston Street. It's three stories high, and the bottom story holds stores and restaurants--Elkins, Varsity Liquor, the Tasty, the Grist Mill, the Wursthaus, all in a blur. The top floors--this is a story about them--are white and austere from the outside, bits and pieces, actually, of three small tacked-toegether buildings. A big sign that says J. HENRY QUINN REAL ESTATE stretches across the space between the second and third stories.

The Concord Building's problem is that it doesn't seem to have much coherent purpose. Like a couple of other buildings in the immediate center of the Square it's an island of seedy lower middle-class America in an affluent student part of town, and there doesn't seem to be any move afoot to change it and capitalize on the youth market.

In fact, any suggestion that the building isn't being put to its best possible use make Charles Turner, who manages it for the Boston firm Meredith and Grew, a little defensive. "What do you expect?" Turner says. "This is not a first-class building, you know. This is an antiquity. The subway runs under it. There are structural problems." Tear it down? "Do you think everybody wants a high-rise in Harvard Square? Maybe this is the way trustees like to maintain it," Turner says.

It has some sentimental value, too, especially because it houses the Wursthaus, Turner says. "That's a landmark in Harvard Square. It's as well known as Jimmy's Harborside. I think every graduate student who comes back to Harvard goes to the Wursthaus. It's like that tobacco store. They never modernized. They never did anything."

Frank Cardullo, who owns the Wursthaus, agrees. His part of the building, he says, used to be an English colonial home and goes back 150, 160, 175 years. Why change it? Cardullo works upstairs in the colonial home part, above the Wursthaus and likes it. The other two parts are a brick addition built in 1926 and an older frame part in the middle, neither of which Cardullo gets up to much. "There's Quinn up there, a real estate man," he says. "And a photographer. Let's see, a beauty shop; a secreterial school, used to be, now it's a printing company. There was a tailor up there too--a fellow by the name of Raia. That was over the Grist Mill. I don't know what's there now."

Actually Edward Raia is still up there with his wife Nora, in two dusty rooms on the third floor. The place is difficult to find because of the way the stairway has to negotiate the boundary between the old frame building and the newer brick one, so Raia put up some signs he drew on posterboard, with Raia Tailor Shop and a pointing finger scrawled on them.

By following the signs you get to a room with a bare floor, an ancient sewing machine, an ancient iron, and a rack of out-of-fashion and sensible clothes that Raia has fixed. The sun streams through the windows, which look out on various roofs. All this makes Raia neither happy nor unhappy. He pays only $50 a month rent, but business is bad this year. On the other hand, business has never been particularly good. Raia's children have done well--one works for Polaroid, the other for a bank--but Raia is getting old himself.

A short and powerfully built man, Raia came to the United States from Italy a long time ago. He doesn't remember exactly what year it was, only that Theodore Roosevelt was in his first term as president and that he had come because he wanted a change. There was not, however, any question about his occupation--"I've been a tailor all my life," Raia says, laughing and shrugging his shoulders. "My father was a tailor."--and Raia set up a shop in Boston when he arrived.

It was only 25 years ago, after his building shut down, that Raia moved to the Concord Building in Cambridge. He didn't move for any special reason--no student trade in mind. "This is the only place I can get," he says. Raia is 85 years old now and still doing alterations, just like always. He doesn't care much who his clients are; the way he sees it, "If somebody comes in, I'll fix 'em. If they don't, goodbye." He likes being in business for himself--"Sure," he says. "Why not? All my life I've been like that."

Raia is the only person working in his part of the building, the brick part, these days. There are two other offices there, but both are empty. Taxman, an income-tax company, is closed in the off- (not near April 15) season and will reopen in January, as it does every year. AID, Inc., which finds temporary employees for businesses, is shut down for good. Business was bad in the Concord Building, and AID is scouting for a new location.

Over on the other side of the Concord Building, the frame part, things are more prosperous. J. Henry Quinn Jr., known as Jimmy, the burly and brusque son of the original J. Henry Quinn, runs the family real estate business out of three efficient rooms on the second floor, and unlike the other tenants of the building he doesn't have much time to talk. "Hey," he says, rushing out of his office. "I don't know anything about this building. If you gotten my father, he could have told you everything, I'm busy, you know? I talk to you, bingo. I gotta talk to everybody."

So J. Henry Quinn Jr. goes about his business, leaving untold the story his father might have told if he too had not been too busy. It would have been a business and finance story, like the stories of most buildings. In 1927, when the first J. Henry Quinn moved into the second-floor office, the building was owned by Mary E. McDonough and valued, along with its land, at $236,000, its worth having recently jumped with the addition of the brick part.

McDonough had only the year before acquired the building, from Felix Garagianes and Nicholas C. Culolias, who had bought it in 1925 from Albert H. Blevins, who had bought it from the Harvard Amusement Company (was it a penny arcade? a whorehouse?). McDonough is listed as the building's sole owner until 1939, when Edward Wyner bought a stake in it; and in 1945 the building came under its present ownership, a complicated trust involving five Wyners and a few others.

Most of the Concord Building's present tenants came in the early days of the Wyner Trust. Raia moved there in 1950; Marguerite Fuller bought the Betty Lee Beauty Shop in 1954; and John and Theodora Marston bought the Darling Secretarial Service in 1948. The Marstons are, in fact, the building's senior tenants now, although they like to defer that honor to Jimmy Quinn on the grounds that he is second-generation.

The Marstons have, however, changed their business with the times. At first it was just the Darling Secretarial Service; later they added the Marston Printing Company, which consists of an old and small printing press; and now the Darling Service is almost vestigial. "We've only kept three or four of our clientele," Mrs. Marston says. "I work for them part time as a secretary."

"Now it used to be..." Mr. Marston says.

"...Theses, briefs, Business School reports," Mrs. Marston says.

"Yes," Mr. Marston says. "Briefs. We had girls here, and we subcontracted the typing."

Mr. Marston, who was born in New Hampshire and is thin and precise-looking, bought the business from Alice Darling, who had been in the building for 25 years herself, because he was interested in getting into the secretarial field. He and Mrs. Marston, who have been married 39 years, have enjoyed their life together in the Concord Building, and they have no plans to retire soon. Business is good--"It stays about the same, as does any business that's operated for quite a while," Mr. Marston says--and the location is almost ideal for a small printing and typing company.

It's not really an ideal location for the Betty Lee Beauty Shop, though, because, owner Marguerite Fuller says, "we don't get too many girls any more." The girls, Fuller says, all wear their hair long and straight these days, and it hurts business. "I don't think that style is becoming to everyone," Fuller says. "Some of them can wear it, of course, but you have to have a certain kind of hair." Nowadays, most of the shop's customers are business women and elderly women, Fuller says.

Still, a mood of optimism pervades the Betty Lee Beauty Shop. Its two rooms are bright and cheery, full of light and mirrors and colors. There is a screen that modestly shields from view women who are having their hair done, and it is covered with vinyl in a pattern consisting of the word "love" repeated over and over. Fuller bought the business from Mary Ryan, who had started it in 1938--no one knows where the name Betty Lee came from--and has thrived there ever since. She doesn't know exactly how she ended up being a hairdresser she is after all, 70 years old, and says she decided on the profession "so long ago that I forget why I did it now."

Since she bought the business, Fuller has worked with Anne O'Neill, who has been at the shop there since its founding in 1938. O'Neill wears a white uniform to work every day, although Fuller has no set outfit and is less prim. They both like the Concord Building. "I love Harvard Square," Fuller says. "There's lots of activity, lots of young people. This is an old building, very comfortable. It's been fairly well taken care of."

Up on the third floor of the Concord Building is a younger generation, two artists in their late 20's who have large airy studios that are filled with light. Neither of them has been in the building long and neither spends much time there or has much contact with the other tenants.

Carol Warner, who is 28 and does interiors of rooms on large canvases, stacking them up against a side wall when she finishes them, works as a waitress at Ferdinand's and lives up in Porter Square. Her studio isn't expensive, though, and she very much wants to be a full-time painter one day. She likes the Concord Building, too, because it is old and has a nice atmosphere. It's kind of gray, actually, and Warner has to admit that gray dominates her paintings. "It's the mood I like to paint in," she says. "I like to play colors against a neutral background," She hasn't sold any of her paintings yet, but hopes one day to have a one-man show.

Dennis Leder, a 29-year-old Jesuit who will be ordained into the priesthood in June, works across the hall, where he looks out on Mass Ave and Boylston Street and like Warner slowly works his way toward artistic success. Leder lives in a Jesuit community in Cambridge and studies at the Weston School of Theology, where he came from New York City a year and a half ago. He decided he wanted to be a priest when he was 18 years old, because of the priesthood's "elements of service to people."

Leder's studio is cluttered with his work, all in a wide variety of sizes, colors, styles and media. There is a huge still-life on one wall; small washes on another; an abstract sculpture; a Spanish nobleman's portrait; a land-scape like one of Cezanne's. "An idiom," Leder says, "will emerge. I don't want to be tied down to any specific thing. Most painters are in their forties before their own particular way of painting emerges."

Now Leder likes best some of his smaller works--a drawing of the Charles River and an oil painting of an Italian garden where he once studied. The best thing about the painting is "the abstract quality, the things alluded to but not defined," while in the drawing "it may be day or night; there's a lot of mystery and ambiguity." Leder says he would like to capitalize on that sense of mystery, but then again, he might decide a little later on that some of his other paintings, outstanding for different qualities, are really his favorites.

So Leder continues to dabble in this and that, still searching, for five hours each day. He likes to look out past his easel at the Square down below, but he doesn't paint it. He worries sometimes about being a painter and a priest at the same time--they're really quite similar, you see, but sometimes people don't seem to understand that. Actually Leder's goals as a priest and as a painter are practically identical, and in his own mind, at least, he has it all worked out quite well. "I strive," he says, "for communication with the transcendant." His gaze drifts out past his easel again, over the rooftops to the hills of Watertown. "I really believe that."

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