A Former Electrical Substation in Boston Now Serves as a Buzzy Neighborhood Hub
When the Roslindale Substation was built on a prominent corner of a Boston square in 1911, it resembled a stately brick church. Its ceilings soared to 35 feet, and huge arched windows flooded the space with sunlight. But instead of pews and parishioners, this grand room housed massive electrical transformers that helped power the city's newly expanded electric trolley system.
The Boston Elevated Railway Company wanted more than utilitarian buildings for its then-cutting-edge technology. The company hired one of the city's top architects, Robert S. Peabody, whose firm had designed a building for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. In Boston, Peabody created a network of handsome structures whose beauty belied their purpose. They would play an outsize role in the city's future, making horse-drawn carriages obsolete and helping clear Boston's tangle of badly congested streets.
In turn, the city thrived and grew. So did Roslindale. As commuting downtown became easier and faster, more people migrated to the neighborhood, which sits toward Boston's southern edge.
The transformers in Roslindale hummed away until 1971, when electric trolleys went the way of horse-drawn carriages. The arched windows were filled with bricks and the enormous front doors were boarded up. That left Roslindale with a notable but empty building on the square (which is actually the triangular Adams Park). There it sat for nearly 50 years, because no one knew what to do with it. This is a conundrum for many historic industrial buildings, but especially for one as idiosyncratic as an electrical substation. How do you reuse even a beautifully built one?
Locals sought an answer to this nearly impossible riddle for decades. In the end, it was only solved through hard work by local community and historic preservation leaders. They pulled it off with persistence, innovative financial arrangements, the work of an enlightened developer, and a little luck. The hurdles were many: Some you might expect with such an unusual project, and some you might not—including a global pandemic.
For years the building had caught the eye of Kathy Kottaridis, director of Historic Boston Inc. (HBI), a longtime preservation organization that saves forgotten old buildings by repurposing them. Whenever Kottaridis drove past it, she wondered why it was boarded up. In 2000, HBI took a hard look at the substation, but decided restoring it would be far too costly for only 8,000 square feet of space divided between two rooms: the cavernous first floor and a basement level.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Roslindale Village Main Street (RVMS) had long had its eyes on the substation. The businesses around Adams Park had come a long way from the 1970s, when nearby shopping malls stole away customers and many residents moved to the suburbs. By the 1980s, Roslindale’s population started to rebound. RVMS started in 1985 as one of the first urban offshoots of the National Trust’s Main Street America program. Its goal was to revitalize the neighborhood’s faded commercial district, and it did so by rehabbing buildings, restoring facades, and recruiting new businesses. It started a farmers market that now operates in Adams Park. Before the pandemic, the market drew 3,000 shoppers each Saturday.
The village square had come back to life, but the boarded-up, increasingly weary-looking substation had not. Once an emblem of the future, it had become a sad reminder of the past.
“When you were there for the farmers market, the substation was right in your face,” says Alia Hamada Forrest, former director of RVMS. “It just kind of hovered like a dark shadow over the square.”
Yet the substation was a beloved landmark for many residents. There was no other structure like it on Adams Park, which was mostly ringed with one- and two-story mom-and-pop businesses. The last thing RVMS wanted was for the building to be demolished for a generic chain store.
What the group did want was for the community to be able to access the space, though it had no idea how. In fact, hardly anyone had even seen the inside of the substation. Regardless, in 2002 RVMS partnered with HBI to commission a feasibility study, which led them to the same conclusion as HBI’s earlier research: A rehabilitation project would cost an estimated $2.8 to $3.5 million.
The years passed. More and more pigeons roosted inside the substation. The state attempted to sell it, but when the highest bidder refused to rule out razing it, the deal landed in court. Finally, in 2006 the state sold the building to the city of Boston. In 2008, the city put out a request for proposals just as the Great Recession hit. Though developers came forward with ideas, none were considered financially viable given the dire economic climate. As a last-ditch effort, the city entered into an unusual agreement with HBI and RVSM. Without selling the substation to them, the city essentially gave the two nonprofits the keys to the great white elephant, with responsibility for finding a way to develop it. Adam Rogoff, then an RVMS board member, finally got a look inside.
“The plywood over the front door and windows let in small shafts of light,” he says. “You could see how grand the space would be if the windows were opened up again. The white subway tiles on the wall still had some glimmer to them.”
By then Rogoff had been working on the fate of the substation for eight years. An environmental lawyer, he was recruited to the project because everyone assumed the building would be polluted from the transformers and would need a major cleanup. In fact, at least two environmental assessments showed it did not. Still, it had no heating, air-conditioning, or even working bathrooms. If the building were rehabbed, enormous windowpanes and frames would need to be custom made. Water damage had caused bricks to peel back from the structural frame in spots.
All that work could be paid for by transforming the substation into offices or apartments, but those uses would mean cutting up the grand room into separate floors and would close it off from the community. So the two groups talked to caterers, with the idea that it could be an event hall. They explored using the building for a winter farmers market, a theater, an art gallery, a jazz lounge, or an annex of the local library. None of these ideas would even come close to offsetting the monumental bill for restoration. After two years of investigating a long list of possibilities, they still had no viable plan.
“We were all worried that we’d never find that magic puzzle piece that would make this work,” Rogoff says. “Many times I thought we’d have to give up on keeping it open for community use, that it would have to be an office or apartment building.”
In 2012, the magic puzzle piece found them. The group got wind that the family who owned the funeral home next door might want to sell it. The entire property had an L-shaped lot that fit neatly around the substation, and the value of developing it would offset the cost of rehabbing the substation. Finally, here was a way to pay for the restoration. HBI and RVMS agreed to buy the funeral home property, but with a purchase and sale agreement that allowed them two years to find a developer.
The first time Jordan Stone, a founding partner of the Rhode Island–based Peregrine Group, walked inside the substation, he kept repeating one word: “Wow.” HBI and RVMS had chosen Peregrine because of the developer’s work on the historic Rumford Chemical baking powder factory, a 200,000-square-foot complex in East Providence, Rhode Island, that it transformed into housing, offices, and retail space. Moreover, Peregrine agreed emphatically with them that the building should have some kind of public use.
In 2013, HBI and RVMS reached an agreement to buy the substation from the city for about $350,000, as well as the funeral home property for $1 million, and then transferred the purchase agreement to Peregrine. (HBI and RVMS each were granted a small share of the substation in exchange for their sweat equity.) Peregrine was free to develop housing on the funeral home site, but the deal also required it to rehabilitate the substation. The two nonprofits successfully applied to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Massachusetts Register of Historic Places. That unlocked nearly $1.3 million in federal and state historic tax credits. “The way they did it was very unusual and savvy,” Stone says.
The beautiful, roomy space was a perfect spot for people to mingle while they sipped IPAs.
The group also began discussions with a well-known Boston restaurateur who tentatively agreed to open a destination restaurant in the substation called Third Rail. An open kitchen would be built in the middle of the huge room. The substation’s rehabilitation was fully underway.
Peregrine built 43 units of rental housing in a new, four-story building clad in brick and fiber-cement siding by the end of 2015. That alone provided more life on the east side of the village square. Work on the substation began the same year. Considering the age of the building and how long it had stood vacant, it was still in good shape, Stone says, which made for a restoration with few big surprises. Peregrine’s team power-washed the white subway tile. It replaced and repointed bricks. New window frames were added, and custom-made glass was installed. Light flooded the palatial room.
The central challenge and cost lay in adding heating and cooling systems. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (which must be followed to obtain historic tax credits) would not allow penetration of the exterior walls, so all the systems had to go atop the barrel roof. The venting needed for a commercial-grade kitchen would have to run straight up to the ceiling. The substation’s restoration ended up costing $4.4 million, and building the kitchen would cost another $1 million, a price that Third Rail would have to pay. While the restaurant owner worked on getting financing, Peregrine finished rehabbing the space.
In the winter of 2017, a craft beer store moved into the basement, becoming the building’s first tenant in 45 years. With the rest of the work done, the team waited for the restaurant to finish raising money. That wait ended when the restaurateur backed out of the deal.
“It was shocking,” Rogoff says. “It really took the wind out of our sails. All of the sudden we got close and then it didn’t happen. What we did have at last was a building that was usable.”
The hunt for an anchor tenant was on again. The team considered other options, now that they knew how expensive a full kitchen would be. RVSM held movie nights and concerts, but the cavernous space proved to be too much of an echo chamber. They transformed it into a kids’ play area, but that was no real economic model.
Then they invited a local business, Trillium Brewing Company, to use it as a beer garden for a few months. Beer drinkers came in droves. The beautiful, roomy space was a perfect spot for people to mingle while they sipped IPAs. A beer garden not only worked, but it would not need a full-scale kitchen.
After Trillium’s time in the substation ended, another local brewery, Turtle Swamp Brewing, started holding pop-ups and month-to-month residencies. Turtle Swamp employees filled the rooms with long tables and plants. They set out board games and stocked a corner with books. A giant window was installed in the front opening where a pair of copper-clad doors had been, adding even more light to the main floor and making it easy for passersby to see inside.
In September of 2019, Turtle Swamp officially moved in, opening Boston’s first permanent beer garden. The brewery also became a venue for special events, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs. Once it opened, locals, college students, and families poured in. The substation had finally become what its proponents had imagined: essentially a community center for everyone in the neighborhood to use.
Downstairs, the craft beer store had closed, but Rogoff decided to start his own business. Renovation work began for his co-operative workspace, Workhub at the Substation. By the spring of 2020, the whole building would be operational at last.
In March of 2021, John Lincecum, co-owner of Turtle Swamp, poured draft beers for Rogoff and Stone in the empty substation. Their voices echoed in the vast space. The plants were pushed to the great front window to bask in the late winter sun. Half the long tables had been removed, and the rest stood bare.
“We were doing well, and then the world changed,” Lincecum says.
At the start of the pandemic, the Turtle Swamp beer garden closed, along with many businesses in Boston. It reopened to serve people outside last summer, but then closed again as temperatures and attendance dropped. Rogoff’s plans came to a temporary halt when the city of Boston stopped all construction for about three months. Peregrine had worked out a deal with both Lincecum and Rogoff on rent so that both businesses could weather COVID, which it was looking like they would. That explained their optimism.
Downstairs, Rogoff had just opened his co-working space, which resembles a stylish library, with long, brightly lit tables in a common room and a series of private offices and conference rooms behind glass walls. He interwove elements from the substation’s former life into the room: Copper-clad doors lean against some of the brick walls and original schoolhouse-style lighting fixtures illuminate a long worktable, where one person bent over a laptop. A young woman curled up in an upholstered chair to peck at her computer. With so many people working from home and companies re-thinking their office space needs, Rogoff believes the demand for a co-working space like this one will have only grown over the past year and a half.
Upstairs, Lincecum leaned his arms atop the bar, folded his hands, and gazed out over his deserted beer garden as he pondered the future. He hoped to reopen it in the spring or summer, after most of his employees were vaccinated. (It ended up reopening on April 30.) He had begun booking microweddings for the space, as well as a Boston Opera Collaborative event for 2022.
Like Rogoff, Lincecum expects that the pandemic might ultimately give his business a boost. People, he reasons, will be more than ready to socialize.
“Everyone will be desperate for a place like this once the pandemic is over,” Lincecum says. “There are very few opportunities to walk into something like a church and order a beer.”
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