‘Long journey for a small building’: a new purpose for the toilet block at Uphams Corner

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For decades, a city-owned building roughly the size of three college dorms that is sandwiched between a Colonial-era cemetery and Columbia Road at Uphams Corner has stood abandoned, presenting for the public view of gaping holes in its roof and containing extensive water damage.

Come summer, things will be different: the building will provide Dorchester residents with affordable, high-quality food from around the world.

Taken under the wing of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps defray the cost of restoring old buildings, the derelict property was taken over by award-winning architects and then found itself between the hands of immigrant entrepreneurs seeking to open a restaurant: Comfort Cuisine.

Once the renovations are complete, Biplaw Rai, Nyacko Pearl Perry, Kwasi Kwaa and Rita Ferreira will open the old public toilets to the neighborhood.

“We actively build community through food,” said Rai, managing partner of Comfort Kitchen. “Rather than just having a sub, a pizza, or a bowl of rice, Comfort Kitchen is going to offer a whole list of global comfort foods that might strike a chord with a lot of people in the city.”

As soon as Historic Boston took on the project, the building, which was built in 1912, showed its age, meaning there would be a high price tag for its rehabilitation.

“Immediately, it was a much more expensive project than we could have imagined,” said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston, citing just over $1.9 million as the cost to transform the restaurant space.

“That’s a lot of money for 1,200 square feet of space,” Kottaridis said.

His organization approaches charitable sources and uses historic tax credit allocations to raise funds and save deteriorated properties from demolition.

“It has economic value that goes beyond making a living from a cash register,” Kottaridis said. “It’s also about helping people become homeowners.”

The Comfort Kitchen team includes (from left to right): Nyacko Pearl Perry, Biplaw Rai, Kwasi Kwaa.
Photos courtesy of Historic Boston, Inc.
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Historic Boston plans to transfer ownership rights to Comfort Kitchen five years after it opens for business, giving the group of small business owners a real estate asset. “Uphams Corner are going to be in for a treat,” Kottaridis said.

Prior to Comfort Kitchen, Nyacko Pearl Perry worked on a community project doing interviews asking people what additions they would like to see come to Roxbury and Dorchester. A recurring theme, she said, was the desire to eat to bring people together.

Now, seeking to provide her neighborhood with healthy food, she is working on a new question: “How to create new spaces without displacement? Part of the reason we want to open our own restaurant is so we can control some of those major decisions,” she said. “Concretely, how much will we be able to pay the employees? How can we actually live out some of the values ​​that we think are missing? »

Before the final idea for 611 Columbia Rd. arrived, Utile Architecture and Planning designed a restoration proposal that would be occupied by a bike shop/café hybrid. Michael LeBlanc, a manager at Utile, was well aware that the building was a stray feature in the neighborhood.

“I used to live right there in the neighborhood less than a few hundred yards away,” he said. “I used to walk my kids right by it all the time, looking at that building and always wondering what would happen to it.”

Abandoned buildings have a profound and negative impact on communities, LeBlanc said, adding that any time one can be brought back online is particularly important.

Nick Buehrens, associate director at Utile, noted that the challenge for this building was that it was not designed to be an open, publicly accessible space. “We tried to strike such an important balance in terms of maintaining the historic character of the building, but also adding increased levels of visual accessibility,” he said.

The restaurant will open for coffee and lunch from morning until early afternoon, then close briefly to prepare dinner, Rai said. Partner Chef Kwasi’s cooking has already been widely praised, including by Eater Boston as the best new pop-up of 2021. “Imagine if you’re cooking at Grandma’s house,” Kwasi said of the flavors to expect.

The veteran chef said Comfort Kitchen will adopt a “holistic comfort food concept”, using “ingredients that are found all over the world and really showcasing them in stories that we can put into select dishes”.

Michael Mawn has been a Historic Boston entrepreneur for nearly 40 years. He says doing restoration work makes it interesting, with tougher challenges compared to new construction. At the Comfort Station, he replaced his exterior windows and fitted a new clay barrel Spanish tile roof.

“Much of the joinery around the corners is new custom joinery to match existing profiles,” Mawn said. “On the Spanish diamond, we incurred considerable expense and difficulty to match the original.” With the help of another architectural firm, Supernormal, the basement of the building will be equipped with a kitchen.

“It will be a real pride for the neighborhood,” Kottaridis said. “It was a long journey for a small building.”

For Perry, the challenges of starting a new restaurant in Uphams Corner are compounded by the mission to correct the course of an unjust profession. “The whole food industry model is not about fairness,” Perry said. “We create our own model.”

A business model that balances providing affordable, high-quality food with well-paid employees is a challenge, Perry conceded, but she says she remains driven by the neighborhood and the building itself.

“They hit something,” Kottaridis said. “Both in terms of the cuisine they’ve chosen, but also the idea of ​​creating work experiences for people in the community is really great.”

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