The Square's Peg

Inside the Concord Building

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."