Over the past few decades, Cambridge has changed. Buildings have been built up; others have been bulldozed. But not everyone wants to tear down the old and replace it. We spoke to two businesses who are taking structures with “good bones” and making something entirely new out of them.
All of my big life changes are when I’m eating, I think,” laughs Virginia Johnson, co-owner of Gather Here. The craft shop’s first incarnation was born over a meal at Christopher’s. When their building was sold in the summer of 2014 and time was running out for Johnson and partner Noah Dubreuil to find a new place, she found herself at the table once more. It was February 2015, and she was dining at the S&S Restaurant in Inman Square.
“I was saying at lunch, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna find a space in time, and so we might just close,’” she says. “And so, I was having an omelette and looked out the window and said, ‘Well, there’s that place!’”
“That place” was a supermarket across the street that had been vacant for a couple of years. It wasn’t zoned to be a restaurant, and the narrow storefront made it impossible to subdivide. So when Johnson called, she turned out to be just the tenant they were looking for.
“There must have been enough light for me to look past some crazy stuff,” laughs Johnson, thinking back to when she returned to the space just after signing the lease. There was a meat locker, complete with meat hooks, in the corner that took three people two days to remove. There were holes in the floor and no lights in the basement, so that when she went down there, the only light came from the holes in the floor. No heat, but an old heating system that didn’t work. No windows. The only light fixture was a single bright light in the center of the ceiling.
“And then the whole thing was covered in graffiti and fliers!” Johnson says. But, she adds, “I saw how long the space was, how tall the ceilings were … and nothing looked like it was going to fall down.”
Good bones and a blank space allowed Johnson and her partner to imagine what the place could be. They set to work to raise the funds, and they launched a Kickstarter in December. They found out that they could keep the brick wall exposed, all of its plaster having been ripped away long before.
“We thought that it was in keeping with who we are, too, like what our business is about,” she says. “We consider ourselves not just retail space but worker space and a place to be industrious.”
Another one of Gather Here’s principles is represented in the sources of their parts and labor. Johnson had the front windows sourced from Pella Windows, a company from her native state of Iowa. And whenever they can, they want to find their building materials locally.
It’s also important to her that the labor stays local and, more specifically, within her community. Johnson, who is also a costume designer for feature films—recent titles include Spotlight, Ghostbusters and Joy—is part of a strong collective of artists and makers based in the area. On the day I visited her, Joe Barillaro, Somerville-based scenic artist for film and television, was filling in a mural of Gather Here supporters who had contributed to their Kickstarter. Even the folks hammering away are friends from the film industry.
“When you’re in the position to make those types of decisions, like staying true to your own roots, it’s really important,” Johnson says.
When I meet Cayla Marvil and AC Jones in front of their soon-to-be brewery, an unbearably loud, metal-against-concrete sound comes roaring from inside, where a white, spray-painted line marks out a large perimeter. A man is sawing through the concrete floor, which is about six to eight inches thick. These trenches will make way for the plumbing and utilities required to sustain a brewery. What Marvil and Jones are attempting far surpasses a retrofit—it’s a full-blown conversion.
“As of right now, it’s basically just a concrete box with no utilities whatsoever,” Jones says of the structure.
Jones and Marvil hadn’t originally set their sights on the building that eventually won their hearts. They’d been looking for a space for about a year, but Cambridge’s tight real estate market made finding a place a game of cat and mouse.
“We had looked at four or five other places prior that all ended up being out of our price range or got snatched up by people who could outbid us,” says Marvil.
“MIT and Harvard own basically everything,” Jones adds, “so any kind of vacant space like this, MIT was like, ‘Sorry, we’re gonna repurpose that.’”
The building that will soon house Lamplighter Brewing Co. sits just down the street from the couple’s home, and it was never meant to be a brewery. The current structure was built in 1912, and by the 1920s it was a car repair shop. For the last 90 years, it’s been either an auto shop or a warehouse. While on the hunt for a location, Jones and Marvil got to know the father-son partners who own 284 Broadway and operated Metric Systems Auto Service out of the space. The team was looking to downsize or retire the business, but they loved the building.
“I’m sure they could have sold the building for millions of dollars, and someone could have ripped it down and built a biotech place right here,” says Jones.
Jones says that they came into the deal with the owners by agreeing to keep the structure of the shop the same and preserve the historic brick facade. It was important to everyone that this be a continuance of the neighborhood, not a trendsetter or propeller of change. They’re even going so far as to keep the shape of the Metro Systems sign that hangs above the sidewalk.
Besides the necessary physical transformation, Jones and Marvil had to make sure that it was environmentally safe to build a taproom on a mechanic’s floor. They took samples, looked for asbestos and passed the tests with flying colors. Most of the concrete that touched oil will be ripped out or covered up. They had to deal with some water damage in the roof—hey, the building is more than 100 years old—but there was nothing structurally wrong with the building.
All the hard work of the conversion is worth it, says Marvil, to keep the brewery near downtown rather than setting up in an industrial park outside city limits. They’re looking forward to joining the brewing community alongside the vets at Cambridge Brewing Company just down the street, as well as Lord Hobo, with its impressive tap list.
“We’re hoping it’s the sort of thing that can attract beer tourism, right? People can visit them and pop over to our spot,” says Marvil. “‘Beer Square.’”