No. 4506 Upham’s Corner Market
The Upham’s Corner Market (also known as the Farm Market) at 600 Columbia Road in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts is in fact three distinct buildings constructed and/or occupied between 1920 and 1927. The principal facades of all three buildings are constructed of red sand-struck brick with contrasting Indiana limestone trim. All three buildings are capped with a flat tar and gravel roof. The buildings collectively form an attached, crescent shaped block. Individually, the buildings stand two to four stories tall at the Columbia Road elevation and three-to five stories tall at the Ramsey Street elevation. While the internal framing andstructural support systems vary from exterior load-bearing masonry in the case of building A and B, to cast concrete in the case of building C, the primary Columbia Road elevations exhibit a deliberately unified, largely continuous facade of restrained Classical Revival style. The rear elevations are strictly utilitarian in character.
The first building, called Building Afor this purpose, was constructed c. 1919 and consists of five bays. The middle bay of the facade is three window widths wide; the central bays of the facade are each five window widths wide; and the end bays of the facade are two window widths wide. Each bay is delineated by limestone string courses and paneled limestone piers with stylized Doric capitals. Limestone keystones, diamond-shaped insets, and a brick and limestone parapet and crest serve to further enliven the facade.
Windows on the second floor facade of Building A originally contained a combination of square 1/1 and shallow arched 1/1 single-glazed wood sash. Those few surviving sash are in very poor condition. Sash counts confirm that 4 of 12 windows on the Columbia Road facade of Building A survive intact. The principal Columbia Road facade of Building B contains windows with frames (but broken panes) in 16 of 30 openings, with the balance missing or broken beyond repair. In the case of Building C, 17 of the original 41 sash are missing or broken beyond repair. The majority of sash are missing due to vandalism over the past few years while the buildings sat empty. First floor storefronts have been blocked in and altered substantially over time and now consist of plywood, except for plate glass on the extreme left end where a laundromat is in operation at the present time. An original metal awning over the central door has been covered, but may be in restorable condition.
The rear elevation of Building A is of common bond red brick masonry with symmetrically placed shallow arched window openings. The majority of these openings have been bricked in, blocked up, or altered with the introduction of loading docks. In the case of all three buildings, the rear elevations have been so altered over time through the introduction of inappropriate
replacement sash and/or blocking in of original openings with plywood, that well over half the openings contain irreparable sash, inappropriate sash or none at all.
The Columbia Road facade of Building B,constructed in 1923, is four bays wide and, as mentioned above, is similar in materials, styling, and detailing to that of Building A, yet asymetrical in design. Building B is three and one half stories in height on its Columbia Road facade and four and one half stories at the rear. Original storefronts at street level have been bricked in, but remnants of the mezzanine level’s original multi-paned windowsremain. Grouped and paired windows of the building’s second and third floors are, with some slight modifications, similar to those of the Building A’s middle and end bays.
Building B’s rear elevation is four and one half stories tall. Three modern overhead garage door openings were installed at street level when the building was converted for use as a public garage at a later date. Blocking of masonry openings on the second floor took place sometime after original construction, but otherwise original window openings are intact. Sash throughout Building B is, like Building A’s, nonexistent or in very poor condition.
The third and last building of the group, Building C,constructed in 1926, is on the Columbia Road facade a continuation of Building B in scale, materials and style. Unlike Building B, however, Building C is symmetrical (like Building A) with a prominent central entrance bay with parapet and cresting.
Building C’s rear elevation is, like the others, strictly utilitarian in nature with overhead garage doors and entrance doors at ground level and symmetrical bays of windows above. One bay of windows at the second floor level has been completely filled in. The rear wall is constructed of poured-in-place concrete. Former paired double-hung multi-pane wood sash have been largely destroyed by vandals and vagrants.
The interiors of all three buildings are open with supporting columns. No decorative elements exist and there is considerable water damage. Plans for Buildings A and C are unavailable. Major prior changes, c. 1960, consist of removal of the mezzanine and the addition of an elevator and a service
elevator in Building B. All counters and various display cases, which had been moved around during the lifetime of the store, were removed, either upon the departure of the Cifrinos in 1933 or by the subsequent owner when the premises ceased to operate as a supermarket.
All three buildings occupy a site at Dorchester’s Uphams Corner section characterized by neighborhood retail establishments, restaurants and other neighborhood services. Directly across from the site on Columbia Road is the Dorchester North Cemetery, which serves to focus visual attention on the Farm Market buildings. At the rear, the former Farm Market parking lot (the first associated with any major store in the Boston area) survives as a municipal parking lot operated by the City of Boston for low-income housing tenants in an adjoining housing project.
The Uphams Corner Market, an early predecessor of the modern supermarket, was founded by brothers John and Paul Cifrino in 1915. At its heyday in the late 1920s, the Upham’s Corner Market encompassed over 50,000 square feet of retail space, had a tremendous diversity of products ranging from shoe repair to a chop suey counter, and was the largest general merchandise food market in the largest residential section of Boston. The Uphams Corner Market, designed in three phases from 1920 to 1927, exhibits a deliberately unified, largely continuous facade in the restrained Classical Revival style. The Uphams Corner Market possesses integrity of location, design, materials and workmanship and meets criteria A and C of the National Register of Historic Places on the local Level.
The area around the crossroads of Columbia Road with Stoughton and Dudley Streets is an old part of Dorchester. The presence of North Dorchester Cemetery, dating back to 1634, originally gave the area the name “Burying Place Corner”. It came to be known as Upham’s Corner after Amos Upham built a store, at what is now the corner of Dudley Street and Columbia Road, around 1800. By 1886 Uphams Corner had become “a thriving suburban shopping area.” Winthrop Hall, a playhouse offering light operatic productions and traveling musical shows, had been built behind the Upham store. Additions to the corner in the 1890’s were the Pilgrim Congregational Church in 18932, the Northwood Apartments by 1898, and the Samuel B. Pierce Building by 19043.
Upham’s Corner strove to keep up with the modern world. By 1908, at least one stable had become an automobile garage; by 1910, an automobile lane had been built on Columbia Road; by 1914, Winthrop Hall had become a moving picture and vaudeville theatre: the place where comedian Fred Allen would make some of his earliest performances4. In 1918, the old Winthrop Theater had become inadequate for the booming Upham’s Corner neighborhood: it was replaced by an entirely new theater. Built as Nathan Gordon’s flagship, the Strand Theater may have been the first Boston movie theater built from the ground up for that purpose. By the 1920s, Upham’s Corner had become the central shopping area for nearly a quarter of a million people as well as becoming a financial district, with the Dorchester Savings Bank moving into old Winthrop Hall in 1929-1930.
Interestingly, the architectural significance of the Columbia Road facade(s) was never carried through to the interior, nor to the rear facades, which are strictly warehouse utilitarian in character. The rear of the building(s) was designed for loading and unloading the huge quantities of fresh produce that passed into the hands of its customers daily and made the market justifiably famous – not for aesthetics. Ironically, it was the rear facade(s) which all of the automobile clientele saw coming and going from the market, made famous in large part because of the Cifrinos’ visionary responsiveness to the post World War I suburbanization and the advent of the personal automobile as the preferred means of transportation.
According to historian Douglass Shand Tucci in his book The Second Settlement 1875-1925; A Study in The Development of Victorian Dorchester, “the major development in the twenties was the opening of John and Paul Cifrino’s market.”
In the early years of the twentieth century there were no food retailing establishments resembling today’s modern supermarket. Instead, a shopper would buy his or her groceries and meat at the meat market; fruits and vegetables at the vegetable and fruit store; eggs, butter, milk, and cheese at the butter and egg store; and on Wednesdays and Fridays, fish at the fish market. Nearly all establishments extended credit and made deliveries.
It was in this now-romanticized era of small-scale merchants and small, perishable purchases, that the Upham’s Corner Market Co. was founded by brothers John and Paul Cifrino on July 7, 1915.
Like many other merchants in their field, the Cifrino brothers had immigrated to the United States from a small southern Italian hilltown near Naples in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their first store – the first Upham’s Corner Market – was a simple fruit and vegetable store in a simple storefront located at 786 Dudley Street in Dorchester.
According to William H. Marnell in his 1971 memoir Once Upon A Store, the marketing philosophy of the Cifrino brothers was simple: No credit … No deliveries … Sell only the best quality merchandise at prices that substantially undercut the competition. This was a revolutionary and some might say impersonal philosophy, but it was a philosophy that sold merchandise and the store prospered. (On its surface, this philosophy also runs counter to the wide reputation enjoyed by the Cifrinos as being compassionate businessmen who were fair to their employees, courteous to their customers, and benevolent to the poor.)
The exact moment when the Upham’s Corner Market was transformed from merely a large and prosperous local market to what would one day be hailed as “The Largest Store in the World” is a fascinating anecdote as relayed by William Marnell:
“It was a Saturday, a day that would be ever memorable in the annals of The Store if there were such. It started as other Saturdays hadstarted, in a period when Saturday and not Friday was the main shopping day. The Store was crowded through the morning, people elbowed their way through masses of other people, fruits and vegetables were stowed in brown paper bags with the usual Saturday morning contortions made necessary by inadequate space and what space there was high over people’s heads. But the crowd was good natured, the clerks whose number the partners had found necessary to increase were energetic, and everything would seem to have been in its natural and normal disorder.
But as the afternoon progressed and the crowd, as then was usual, increased, that fine point at which tension breaks was reached.Disorder became panic and a shopping crowd became a frightened mob. By the grace of the Almighty and nothing less, no one was hurt. The police came in time to help people out of the melee, gradually The Store was cleared, and the sound advice of the precinct captain, that The Store be forthwith closed for the day, was earnestly given and gratefully accepted.
Behind drawn curtains a subdued, quiet, frightened group of men and boys put things to rights.
That night the partners talked it over … Since they had the capacity to make quick and firm decisions, they decided that night to build The New Store, a store so ample and capacious as to court success and welcome its coming … “
Acting on their decision John and Paul Cifrino acquired from Samuel B. Pierce et al. a piece of land at 600 Columbia Road in Dorchester on February 18, 1919. This land a.k.a. “Lot B” was located at the confluence of what by 1925 would be six busy streetcar routes in the Upham’s Corner section of Dorchester, an area that was quickly becoming the central shopping and financial district to a quarter of a million people.
Though no early building permits have survived, City Directories, records of original architectural drawings, and City Atlases of the period indicate that the year 1919 saw the construction of the first Uphams Corner Market on Columbia Road. Unfortunately, no plans of this building survive.
This new market, known as Building A for our purposes, contained 19,696 square
feet on two floors and had a diversified product line that, according to Marnell, included meats, groceries, butter and eggs, as well as fruits and vegetables. This centralization of distribution was a new approach to food marketing at the turn of the century and was so successful that by the 1920s the Cifrino brothers, according to M. M. Zimmerman, the founder of the Super Market Institute, “had established themselves as one of the largest and most important volume food operators in the Boston area.”
Marnell observes that “what made the Upham’s Corner Market unique in its day was its size; what makes it unique in the history of food stores is that this Goliath of a store had to grow with no tradition of giants on earth to form its progress.” According to Marnell, in the early (Building A) days, the Cifrino brothers wrestled with the problem of shopping in such a large store. They worked out the concept of the sales slip and bundle counter, and the concept of making all ones purchases before picking up any of them.
The first Columbia Road expansion came in 1923. In February of that year, Upham’s Corner Market, Inc. purchased the lot, with a garage thereon, adjacent to the existing market. Very shortly afterward, the Upham’s Corner Market was expanded. The new market had a net floor area approximating 29,000 square feet, a new delicatessen, and a bakery. This building, Building B for our purposes, was designed by Willard M. Bacon, in the Classical Revivalstyle. Architectural plans on file at the Boston Public Library attest to the fact that that Building A was also given a “face lift” at this time to match its new counterpart.
Bacon ran his architectural practice out of an office at 27 Kilby Street in Boston and, according to information on file in the Fine Arts Department of the Boston Public Library, is most noted for his work in Winthrop, Massachusetts including its Public Library, High School, a number of grammar schools and City Hall.
Still further expansion came in 1926 when the Cifrino brothers acquired “Lot D” and constructed an additional 21,600 square feet of retail space.
Designated Building C for our purposes, this building brought the total retail floor area of the new Upham’s Corner Market to over 50,000 square feet, more than ten times the size of the larger area meat markets, and some thirty times the size of the customary neighborhood corner store.
By now, according to Marnell (as re-iterated in a telephone interview with Paul Cifrino, Jr.), the Market was a combination food store and “food carnival”. It contained a cafeteria, tobacco and magazine stand, soda fountain, chop suey counter and shoe repair shop offering customers a range of food products unique to the City. It was advertised as “The Biggest Food Store in the World” and was, to many, the first one-stop shopping center in Boston.
The final expansion of the Upham’s Corner Market occurred late in 1926. The Cifrino brothers, realizing the impact that the automobile would have on the shopping habits of their customers, purchased six wood frame buildingsdirectly behind the market on Ramsey Street14, razed them18, and created a parking lot. This is said to be the first instance of food merchandising capitalizing on the potentially enormous automotive clientele.
In an interview conducted by American Landmarks, Inc. City Councillor Albert P. “Dapper” O’Neill recalled that as a young boy in the late 1920s, he would work the parking lots on Saturdays and Sundays, carrying bags to cars for customers. This was private entrepreneurship, for the Cifrinos either neglected to consider, or deliberately avoided the need for assistance to customers carrying their bags from The Store. O’Neill’s “turf” was hard won, and positions near the door were sometimes fought for amongst the boys. The bag carriers would often transport bags of groceries to the buses at the corner of Columbia Road and Dudley Street for those who didn’t own a car. A third group of more parsimonious clientele pulled their own wagons to The Store, carting their groceries home with them in this fashion after shopping.
It was the kind of foresight exemplified by attention to an emerging automobile-oriented suburban market, just then taking shape, which, more than anything else, contributed to the Cifrino brothers success, and distinguishes them to this day. To quote Marnell: “The truth was that (specialized type food) stores in general were destined to be less and less bases of supplies, and more and more culinary way stations … It was the great and unrivalled contribution greater even than their highly competent management, that they could penetrate to the heart of such truths.”
The Upham’s Corner Market, according to Marnell, was simply “The Store” to a whole community. And a diverse community it was, made up of first, second, and third generation Americans of mainly Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, German, or Canadian heritage – although a few thrifty Yankees were to be found trading at the store as wel1.
“It was a revelation of the inexhaustible wealth of America to immigrants who ventured from the poorest part of The Town, or from the most modest parts of the Peninsula, and revelled at displays of fresh fruit unknown and unimagined in the lands from which they came. It was a revelation of the inexhaustble variety of America to the grande dames from up The Road when they dabbled in democracy and visited The Store.”
The Cifrino brothers conveyed title to the Upham’s Corner Market to United Markets, Inc. in 1928. The brothers stayed on as managers however until 1933, Paul as president, John as vice-president. In 1934 the brothers opened a new store at 530 Gallivan Boulevard.20 Supreme Market, as this store was known, further refined the brothers’ revolutionary merchandizingphilosophy. By expanding the self-service component of the Upham’s Corner Market and by introducing one-stop check out service, the brothers established what can correctly (technically) be described as a super market.
Supreme Market was so successful that in 1968 it was merged with Purity Markets to became the corner stone of the Purity Supreme chain of super markets.21 Paul Cifrino remained active in the food sector until the1960’s, quoted and referenced in trade publications as late as 1963. He lived out his retirement years in Florida, dying only recently. The story of John Cifrino’s later years is less clear, but clearly he too had earned his place as a visionary in the annals of the food service industry.
The prominence of the Uphams Corner neighborhood was significantly enhanced, and its viability as an important urban commercial satellite-center
reaffirmed, by the presence of the Uphams Corner Market. The Jacobean-Classical Revival tone of the facade(s) lent an air of formality to the crossroads commercial center which had slowly been evolving a more staid appearance with the construction of other buildings in the Classical Revival mode (see below), whereas prior to the emergence of this trend, Uphams Corner had been dominated by more cumbersome Victorian style commercial buildings or the simpler wood vernacular buildings of its early years. The use of the ballustraded classicism of the market was particularly appropriate in that it occupies a site at a prominent curve on the boulevard directly across from the oldest burying ground in the area, the Dorchester North Cemetery of 1634. As such, it serves as a formal “border” to this lovely but somber landscape element. This relationship may not have gone un-noticed by architect Willard Bacon when he adopted the staid but pleasing Jacobean-Classical Revival hybrid motif for the facade(s) of his market building(s).
This Classical Revival building blended with the existing architecture of Upham’s Corner. At the time of the market’s construction, the area’s existing architecture was varied with Classical Revival as the predominant style. The following buildings are listed in the Boston Landmarks Commission’s register of historical buildings in Dorchester.
The Columbia Square Building, at 584 Columbia Road, was originally built as the Masonic Hall between 1885 and 1889. It is a four story Neo-Classical Revival commercial block of brick with stone trim.
The Pilgrim Congregational Church, at 540 Columbia Road, was built in 1893, with Stephen Earle as the architect. It is a two story brick building with stone trim in the Romanesque Revival style.
The Municipal Building, at 500 Columbia Road, was built in 1902. It is a three story Classical Revival building of brick with stone trim.
Boston Fire Department Engine House No. 21 at the corner of Columbia Road and Annabel Street, was built about 1910. This Mission Style stucco building is two stories in height with a three story attached tower.
The Strand Theater, from 543 to 553 Columbia Road, was built in 1917-1918. Designed by Funk and Wilcox, it is two stories with a terra cotta entrance. The rest of the theater block is two story brick in the Classical Revival motif.
The Dorchester Savings Bank, at 572 Columbia Road, was remodeled from oldWinthrop Hall in 1929-1930. It is a two story Moderne building of brick with a stone facade. Thus, the major buildings around Upham’s Corner vary stylistically, with the majority being vernacular Classical Revival. Except for the fire station, all are masonry with stone or concrete trim.