This former men's bathroom on the Boston Common has been made into a restaurant. (Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe/Getty …The location of Boston's new Earl of Sandwich restaurant can't be beat -- it's right in the middle of one of the busiest and most-visible parts of the Boston Common, the oldest public park in America. But the building's history may give some diners pause: The stone kiosk where workers will be prepping sandwiches for the lunchtime crowd used to be a public bathroom.
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Known locally as The Pink Palace (the stone blocks used to build it are rose-colored), the 660-square-foot octagonal structure was built in the 1920s and used as a "men's comfort station" for about 50 years. It was closed in the 1970s and has spent four decades locked up tight, filled with old urinals, decrepit toilets, and rusting pipes.
When the Florida-based Earl of Sandwich company announced that it would be opening a restaurant in the former restroom, reactions were mixed.
"This is a great opportunity to transform a unique unused space into an active business, while contributing to the vitality of the Boston Common," Toni Pollak, Commissioner of Boston Parks Department, said in a statement. "This project will allow us to preserve a historic building while also bringing new life to the park for all visitors to enjoy."
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"I think that it's a really terrible idea for the shop to open up in the common," Kyna Doles, a senior at Emerson College, told the Journalism Students Online News Service. "It's one of the few areas that should be reserved for non-commercial purposes."
Colin Zick, chairman of the Parks and Public Spaces Committee of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, told The Boston Globe that he was "cautiously optimistic and a little bit skeptical."
"The place is a disaster right now," he said. "An enormous amount of money is going to have to be spent to bring it up to modern standards."
A 2007 engineering report on the building called its condition "very poor."
"The glass and copper roof has failed, the entry door is severely damaged, and the interior finishes are damaged beyond repair," the report said.
Planet Hollywood International Inc., which owns the sandwich chain, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into updating and renovating the building. That's on top of signing a $50,000-a-year lease with the city of Boston.
"I spent a seven-figure sum - in excess of a million bucks! - on [barely] 500 feet, which I don't think has been done before," Robert Earl, who runs Planet Hollywood International, told The Boston Globe. "But we have a 15-year-lease with the city and feel very good about it. We're in love with the location."
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They building now looks much as it did during its heyday, with copper flashing and clerestory windows -- but without its former contents. Instead, the interior is a kitchen and prep space; all seating is outside, under big red umbrellas.
The restaurant chain says that it serves "the world's greatest hot sandwich," and backs up its claim with some royal credibility: One of the company's partners is a distant relative of the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who is said to have created the lunchtime staple in 1762.
Legend has it that the Earl, who was also the First Sea Lord and commander of the British Navy, came up with the idea at the card table, when he was too busy gambling to eat and instead requested that his meat be served between two slices of bread, so he wouldn't have to put down his cards to use cutlery. Others say that it was an invention born of necessity.
"There was no time to feed the troops, so he said, just get two pieces of bread and put some boiled beef in the middle," Robert Earl explained.
In November, a crowd of college kids, office workers, and tourists filled the kiosk's new outdoor seating area soon after opening day.
Repurposing an existing building is a great way to go green, but turning an old public restroom into a restaurant? Readers, what do you think?