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City seeks developer for historic Columbia Road building

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
City seeks developer for historic Columbia Road building
The comfort station at 611 Columbia Road. (Banner photo)

Since 1977, the comfort station at 611 Columbia Road has remained vacant, its doors and windows sealed shut.

Last Friday, prospective developers, business owners and curious neighbors got a peek inside the one-story building, constructed in 1912 as a public bath house with showers and toilet stalls next to the Dorchester Burial Ground in Upham’s Corner.

With a developer’s touch, the building could be transformed into a small eatery, coffee shop or boutique. But rebuilding the approximately 1,100 square-foot building won’t be easy, said Department of Neighborhood Development Project Manager William Epperson.

“It will need an extensive rehab,” he said. “The end use will determine what needs to be done.”

Prospective buyers trickled through the building during the hour-and-a-half-long viewing Friday morning, their flashlights revealing bits of the building’s details — tiled walls and floors, still-intact shower stalls, and thick interior walls. Here and there, holes in the clay-tiled roof let in shafts of sunlight that did little to illumine the darkness.

In the basement, accessible by a narrow wooden staircase with low clearance, well-rusted sewer pipes serve as a reminder that the building will need new plumbing, in addition to a replaced roof, new windows and doors and a new electrical system.

The renovations will not be simple.

“It’s clay block with stucco,” Epperson said. “It’s a little unique for New England. You can’t just come in and re-frame it. You have to work with what’s there.”

When it opened, the comfort station was one of many in Boston. In the early part of the 20th century, many tenements in the city lacked indoor plumbing. The clay-tiled roof and stucco exterior complement the 1926 Italianate Engine 21 Fire House at 641 Columbia Road.

“It was the style of public architecture in the early part of the last century,” notes DND Senior Project Manager Reay Pannesi. “You see a lot of public buildings in that style in Boston.”

Any redevelopment plans for the comfort station will be subject to approval from the Boston Landmarks Commission and the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Because the building is listed in the state and national registers of historic places, it’s likely that prospective developers would be required to retain the building’s exterior, including the red-tiled roof.

The DND officials said neighborhood residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on proposals for the redevelopment. Bids are due Nov. 12. There will be another opportunity for bidders to view the property Oct. 24 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. There will be a minimum $100 purchase price.

“We’d like to see a redevelopment that brings further economic development to the greater Upham’s Corner neighborhood,” Epperson said.

“There’s all kinds of possibilities,” said Dorchester resident Dianne Knowles, who toured the structure with her daughter Alexandra. “What you really need is someone with a vision for the building.”

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