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Rachael Solem, Longtime Irving House Proprietor, Remembered for Her Impact on Local Businesses

Rachael Solem, a founding member of Cambridge Local Frist business organization, died aged 68.
Rachael Solem, a founding member of Cambridge Local Frist business organization, died aged 68. By Marina Qu
By Michael A. Maines, Crimson Staff Writer

Rachael Solem, a founding member of the Cambridge Local First business organization, was remembered by Cambridge residents and leaders for her commitment to the city’s small businesses and nonprofits.

Solem, who ran the bed-and-breakfast Irving House, had close ties to several other local business groups and a deep love for the serving the local Cambrdige community, according to people who knew her.

Beyond her entrepreneurial ventures, Solemn supported many local nonprofits, including the Community Servings, On the Rise, and Future Chefs, and shelters in Cambridge for women and families, including Renae’s Place, the Tanner Residence, and the Cambridge YWCA.

Solem died on January 15. She was 68.

“She had a big heart and a big brain, and we are really, really grieving her loss,” said Theodora M. Skeadas ’12, executive director of Cambridge Local First.

Solem was known for her ability to bring people together, according to her daughter Briana Pearson.

“She has so many different circles of people and communities that she built that it’s pretty impressive that everyone still felt so connected,” Pearson said in an interview.

Solem got her start in Harvard Square in 1990 when the establishment that is now Irving House was in poor condition and up for sale.

At the time, Solem had no experience in hospitality and learned all of the necessary skills on the job.

“The story goes, she’d never even stayed in a hotel before she bought a hotel,” Pearson said.

Solem built a devoted clientele by offering a comfortable, welcoming space for travelers to Harvard Square. She later purchased Turner House, which catered to short-term renters, and Harding House, a bed-and-breakfast similar to Irving House.

Pearson said that what her mother created in Harvard Square was unique, considering the landscape of national hotel brands that cater to high-spending travelers.

Harding House was known for its quirks, including the baked goods staff made for guests each morning, the typewriter in the parlor where guests could leave messages to each other, and the musicians who were invited to showcase their work in the building’s common spaces.

Solem additionally co-founded Cambridge Local First in 2005 as an advocacy organization. Solem was motivated by an influx of large corporations that challenged local businesses and a shift in consumer spending habits toward online retail.

The nonprofit organization now consists of 500 independent businesses in Cambridge and advocates for local commerce.

“Everybody loved working with Rachael. I stopped by the bed-and-breakfast very often to say hi to her and get a coffee,” Skeadas said. “It’s such a welcoming place. It’s a beautiful establishment, and she treated her staff with such care and such diligence.”

Despite her residences standing out for their distinct contributions, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened Solem and other proprietors across the hospitality industry.

Unable to keep three businesses running during the major slowdown in sales, Solem decided to close Harding House and focus her resources on Irving House to get through the pandemic.

In 2021, Solem stepped back from her role at Irving House, and Pearson took on the job of general manager. Solem continued her involvement with Irving House, fulfilling supervisory responsibilities at the location for the next few years.

Since Solem’s passing, Pearson is transitioning into a more prominent role at Irving House. She said that she aims to preserve what her mother has spent the past three decades building.

As she looks ahead toward maintaining the establishment her mother built while also exploring new avenues, Pearson said she sees challenges on the horizon. For instance, the rise of online booking platforms has cut margins for small hospitality businesses.

“It’s been a constant battle to help people understand that if you book directly with a small independent property, you’re helping put money back into the community,” Pearson said.

According to Pearson, the relationships Solem forged with her employees and customers were a key source of motivation, helping her persevere through the challenges of establishing and sustaining her hospitality business.

Skeadas believed that Solem’s compassionate nature made her exceptionally well-suited to her role as a supporter of local businesses.

“She’s a woman who was profoundly candid, thoughtful, clear-eyed, and deeply empathetic,” Skeadas said. “Those are really hard qualities to find. And the combination of all those things made her a very special person.”

—Staff writer Michael A. Maines can be reached at michael.maines@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @m_a_maines.

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